29 January 2007

The False Myth of Barbaro

Barbaro: April 29, 2003 - January 29, 2007

So it happened. Barbaro was put out to the proverbial pasture. As everyone knows, Barbaro produced an immense reaction among the American public. Donations poured in (something on the order of $1.2 million) to cover his medical care. News tickers brought us constant updates about his status. Letters of sympathy, get well cards, prayer vigils -- he had it all. His personal physician even gave press conferences.

If there are cynical overtones in my post, I apologize. I love animals -- I've had many pets in my life -- but I don't understand the Barbaro reaction. I just don't. Earlier today, Outside the Lines had some sort of tribute to him, which I was unable to watch. Newspapers and sports web sites are overflowing with words about the Glory of Barbaro. But again, I don't understand.

Barbaro may have captured the public's attention and affection, but unlike Seabiscuit, he did not represent the hopes of the American people beyond the universal will to keep on living found in all animals. Nor did he somehow provide a beacon of sunlight in a time of darkness; this may be a rough time for America's position in the world, but that pales in comparison to the troubles experienced by nearly every American during the Great Depression. Instead, he was an exciting horse, who if he had lost the Preakness rather than getting injured would have faded from public memory in short order. He would also have been quite literally put out to pasture, eventually becoming a stud once his racing career came to a more natural and less unsettling end.

What bothers me most is not that the public reaction to Barbaro was so postive -- it's that it was frustratingly misapplied. Why must it be Barbaro, a wonderful horse who is still but a horse, when numerous other stories both tragic and heroic deserve equal attention? Forget politics and current events; even within the realm of sports we can find many instances where athletes and fans are worthy of an equal amount of adulation and support. ESPN the Magazine recently featured a piece on Genarlow Jones, a young man and athlete who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year old girl when he was 17. That case has generated much deserved attention (and condemnation of Mr. Jones' sentence) all over the country. But where is the Barbaro-like reaction for athletes like Albert Pujols, Warrick Dunn, and Dikembe Mutombo, who have done tremendous charity work? Yes, Mutombo was featured at the State of the Union address, but it would probably take more than breaking his leg during a game against the Knicks to earn $1.2 million in donations for his foundation, which has built hospitals in Africa.

It is this kind of useless fervor that turned the Duke lacrosse scandal into a despicable circus of speculation and guilt-before-innocence. When combined with prosecutorial ineptitude and political greed, surely egged on (but by no means excused) by our collective magnifying glass and its distorting powers, the results were devastating. The lives of several young men are permanently altered, and a troubled young woman has been put through such a torrent and so manipulated by the prosecution, one wonders if she knows which way is up.

Is my own frustration misapplied? In any case, you need only go so far as CNN.com to see how misdirected this nation's collective attention frequently is. As of this writing, the web site of the nation's leading news outfit features stories on a model claiming slander by E! television, a window washer hanging by his toes, and Peter O'Toole declaring he's "still in the bloody game." And this appears to be a slow day for that sort of "news."

But perhaps we can learn from this. Perhaps next time an athlete tests positive for steroids and is named to the Pro Bowl and gloats about it, our outrage will be genuine. Perhaps next time Warrick Dunn builds a house for a family in need, we'll not only applaud but stand up and say, "Where do I send my donation?"

Or maybe not. Maybe what we want is just another distraction, something to gossip about in the office snack room. We may not have long to wait: the Kentucky Derby is just a few months away.

8 comments:

Huguenot said...

Well written, and a great point. If only this was posted to the UPenn Message boards!

Gloria Styner said...

How dare you write such drivel about a beautiful animal. I have never seen such a courageous and heoric animal. If my husband had left me I would have wed Barbaro.

Loretta said...

well writeen and thoughtful piece - we need to read more articles like this one!

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