12/16/2015 4:20PM

Hovdey: Social media commit frivolous claim of foul


Congratulations, social-media jockeys. A healthy portion of the goodwill engendered by the exploits of American Pharoah was just flushed down the porcelain convenience by the ranting and raving over Sports Illustrated’s choice of Serena Williams instead of their Triple Crown hero as 2015 Sports-whatever of the Year.

Behold how the mainstream media characterized the mini-tsunami of protest over a decision that was never a matter of public choice in the first place:

“Horse People Are Mad That a Horse Didn’t Win Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year Award” – Slate.

“People Can’t For Life Of Them Figure Out Why A Horse Didn’t Win ‘Sportsperson Of The Year’ ” – Huffington Post.

“Serena Williams Beats American Pharoah, And Racing Twitter Turns Ugly” – Forbes.

Some of that Twitter bile was ginned up by American Pharoah’s immediate family. Ahmed Zayat shrieked, “ROBBED! ROBBED! ROBBED!” while his offspring, Justin and Ashley, tweeted their crushing disappointments. Marie Antoinette never sounded so betrayed.

This is not the time to go into all the bad things about Twitter that countervail the good. I dabble, lightly, but for the most part, I agree with the British writer and comedian Stewart Lee, who describes Twitter as being like “a state surveillance agency run by gullible volunteers.” Just because someone can tweet does not mean he should.

What concerns me more is that at some point, I must have missed the memo. Sports Illustrated has maintained an entertaining corner of the journalism world for more than 60 years, and without it, the work of writers like Jack Mann, William Nack, Frank Deford, Whitney Tower, William Leggett, and Sally Jenkins might have gone unread by serious followers of horse racing. But when did recognition from a magazine that once covered roller derby and wrestling as legitimate sporting events come to mean more than actual achievement on the field?

American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, just like 11 other horses in history. Serena Williams has won 21 grand slam tournaments, more than all but two tennis players in history. Apples and oranges are easier to compare. For a group of editors to decide which among the many uber-achievers is more worthy of a magazine cover is just another way modern culture has decided to make people feel bad. Now, with social media, they’ve got plenty of help.

“Americans have not, in fact, arrived at a historical moment where it is OK to compare Black women’s athletic prowess to the athletic prowess of animal and then act surprised that Black people react to the specter of chattel slavery,” wrote Brittany Cooper, a Rutgers professor and cultural commentator, on Salon.com. “But since people are obsessed with comparisons, let’s be clear: American Pharaoh would have to win the Triple Crown twice to even be in Serena’s league.”

Of course, he can’t, which is the writer’s wry point. But even though he could not win another Triple Crown, American Pharoah did not need to retire. He could have run on as a 4-year-old, a 5-year-old, soaring ever higher in the sports firmament, crafting an equine career that might have compared more intimately with those of the greatest human athletes.

But no, his people took the short money, and he’s gone, now to be appreciated only for his procreative prowess and held accountable for sons and daughters who will never be able to measure up to old dad. Welcome to Thoroughbred racing, a small dog wagged by a giant breeding tail.

It has been the contention of this corner for some time that Thoroughbred racing – its fans, its stakeholders, its management – should stop trying to think of itself as competing for a piece of the same pie devoured by the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NCAA. The game’s just not ready for the scrutiny that comes with such economic impact, primarily because there is no national governing body to represent its constituents. And there never will be.

In a better world, an office of national racing commissioner could take the repeated attacks from an organization like PETA by the throat and marginalize the impact. A national office could devise incentives for keeping young, healthy males at the races for a few more years. A national commissioner of racing could establish permanent programs to fund and operate facilities to care for retired equine athletes, and then brag about it far and wide.

And not for nothing, a league office could have done a lot toward putting a circulation gimmick like the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year in proper perspective and then issued a statement that would go something like:

“The sport of Thoroughbred racing congratulates Serena Williams on this recognition of her remarkable achievements and is grateful that our Triple Crown champion, American Pharoah, was considered among the elite group of candidates for the honor.”

Instead, left to the disproportionate impact of social media, horse racing comes off the petty loser, while Williams gets the last laugh. Her comments at the free lunch announcing the magazine award included this aside:

“I’ve had my shares of ups and downs,” Williams said. “I’ve had many struggles. I’ve had blood clots in both my lungs at the same time, and I’ve lived through tragedies and controversies and ... horses.”

The Kentucky Derby can’t come soon enough.