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Chris Borland & Breakdowns

Yesterday, Wisconsin product and promising sophomore Chris Borland, announced he was retiring after one year in the NFL. Borland, who is 24, and slated to earn tens of millions through his playing career in the game he loves, is retiring "out of concern for his long-term mental and emotional health, citing the sport’s irrefutable link to concussions and serious neurological diseases."

Breaking it down, he is saying "Football is so inherently dangerous, so obviously flawed, that the incentive of living a childhood dream after a lifetime of training and for millions of dollars isn’t strong enough to continue."

The NFL knows about this issue and has met it with dozens of rule changes. Fans, some coaches, and others lament the "changing of the game", but over the last five years there have been seminal new policies: Running backs can not lead with the head, any hit above the shoulders is called, tacklers can not lead with any part of the helmet, concussion protocols and much more.

Only time will tell if those changes are enough. Chris Borland does not seem to think so.

Horse racing is in a similar position as the NFL. In this day and age treatment of the animal and breakdowns are a huge issue. 2015 is a lot different than 1915, where horses were looked at as a means to an end. Circus's are being cancelled, Sea World has its issues and on and on. There are people, like me, who are reticent to invest in thoroughbreds, because we fear breakdowns. I would not sleep for a year if one of mine ever broke down.

While the NFL is more proactive than most - it, to me, is stunning how it's held its place in Americana, as such a rough and tumble game - racing is not. Even minor policy change is met with a shrug, because people know it may take years to pass something meaningful, or it will never pass at all.

Keeping vet records to pass-on when a horse is claimed was met with, "that's a lot of paperwork, so I don't know how we'd do that" by some trainers and commissions.

If a racetrack made of cottage cheese showed it cut breakdowns by 90%, there would still be a massive contingent in horse racing who'd be anti-cottage cheese racetracks, trying to sabotage them at every turn. 

Vet inspections are looked at as intrusive, and hurting ones ability to make a living.

Out of competition testing has, will, and will continue to be protested by horsemen groups.

Breeding does not change. There is no policy to weed out bleeders, or those bred for speed, or those families who may have an issue with sesamoids, for example. There are no rules to breed for stamina and endurance, which should result to fewer breakdowns and physical issues in a generation or two. It's Adam Smith on steroids.

If a trainer was caught using pain killers on his horse, which could result in breakdowns, appeals and stays are granted, jockeys are still lined up to ride for a high percentage barn, and the trainer will have a barn full of owners.

In the NFL, high level change is done pretty swiftly, and felt right down the chain. When rules are changed at the top, a Pop Warner coach immediately starts coaching it at the bottom. It's a fast process.  Amazingly, the NFL - with 300 pound men who can run a 4.9 40, throwing themselves as human projectiles in body armor at each other - could possibly be safer and in better shape in 20 years than horse racing is for its athletes.

Regardless, racing in many ways has been at a crossroads for years. The NFL has been walking a perilous tightrope as well. There's a chance that both could be a shadow of itself as a revenue driver in a generation. But at the very least, football has some sort of structure that realizes a problem, and puts some policy in place that will have an effect on the future within a matter of months. Racing is not there yet, and from what I see, might never get there.


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