02/03/2014 10:54AM

Jay Bergman: Coletta tragedy brings comparisons between NFL and racing

Derick Giwner
Drivers inspect the Harrah's Philly track on a rainy day.

Can contact to the head in the sport of football cause concussions?

In the year 2014 we no longer need to answer that question. Legal minds have spoken and as such in the NFL, the largest sports corporation in the world, has come to terms with the reality and moved towards adjusting play to some degree with a shred of concern over the health and welfare of its athletes.

Some have argued that the “new rules” have watered down a game built on speed, strength and shocking collisions. The NFL built its brand as bigger, faster and stronger athletes elevated the quality (violence) of the game.

Now, thanks to its past players, the ones who sacrificed much of their health and well being for the good of the game, the league has finally taken some of the credit (blame) for the physical toll on its employees.

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To the standardbred drivers, the tragic accident that took place at Harrah’s Philadelphia on November 17, 2013 that permanently changed the life of Anthony Coletta could help change the way tracks look at taking care of racing surfaces. It could be that NFL moment when suddenly a large corporation is expected to do something in the name of safety rather than in the name of the bottom line.

It’s hard to fathom that those making billions owning professional football teams were unaware of the health consequences players were undertaking and only woke up when challenged in court.

The same is true for those who put on racing, even if that business is an adjunct to a more profitable gaming establishment. It’s hard to get injured pushing a button on a machine, but more probable when a segment of the track erodes to the point that a horse becomes unstable and falls suddenly.

The interesting parallel between football and racing is what drives this argument. NFL players could have banded together long ago and decided to strike if the league didn’t accept responsibility for injuries. At the same time such a strike would leave the players without the funds necessary to conduct their lives.

Why not strike?

It’s the first question that came to my mind when I heard drivers echoing sentiments about the track condition at Harrah’s and how they had been asking for improvements for a long time with no apparent response.

On November 17, 2013, Coletta went down but the band played on at Harrah’s for the remainder of the racing card and the completion of the track’s racing season.

Hall of Fame driver Ron Pierce shed light on the plight of all drivers on the racetrack. Given the safety issue, I asked Pierce how he deals with driving a horse that he feels is unsound.

“I just pray that the stewards or the state vet will notice and scratch the horse. The owners and trainers don’t like it when you ask for the horse to be scratched,” said Pierce.

Here’s where the parallel ends. Unlike football, harness drivers are asked to perform at times when track condition is not the only variable to safety. In a perfect world, drivers could stop the races if they deem the track unsafe, but Pierce suggested that drivers tend to react differently.

“We all know there’s a spot that can get bad on the first (and third) turn at Harrah’s,” Pierce said, “When that happens we will race a few lengths off the rail to avoid it.”

Pierce reflected on the inherent danger of racing this way, “Every time I go out there I’m just happy to come off the track in one piece, no matter whether I made money or not,” said Pierce.

The reality of the sport is that much like football it comes with risks and rewards. In Pierce’s case, he considers his most painful injury to be when he broke his shoulder in a wreck, but at the same time he also broke his neck in a racing accident. Despite those painful injuries, Pierce has bounced back and is among the leading drivers annually in the sport.

It’s difficult for a layman to understand how drivers can witness these terrible accidents yet somehow go back on the racetrack within minutes to compete again.

“If I was worried about getting into a wreck before a race I wouldn’t be able to go out there,” said Pierce. “It’s just something you have to block out of your mind.”

Racing is safer than it has ever been. The removal of the hubrail has given drivers the freedom to go inside or outside to avoid an accident. Drivers’ helmets protect them better and vests also offer added protection.

Experience cannot be minimized as a factor that helps avoid injury. In Pierce’s case he reminds us that he is always focused on the terrain that may lead to a pile-up.

“I always study the other horse’s heads while I’m in a race. When you see a horse’s head move down you know there’s a chance he’s going to go down,” said Pierce. “When I see that I just look to get out of the way.”

While lawyers for Coletta have been given the go ahead to inspect the racing surface at Harrah’s Philadelphia, it’s somewhat questionable what they will find. Sure, the racing surface is always a factor that plays a role in an on-track accident, but so too is inexperience. In this case that may have meant that the horse, who was making only his second lifetime start, didn’t have sufficient experience to respond quickly enough to a change in the action. In some cases no amount of experience will help when an incident takes place too quickly and without warning.

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Despite the legal system and our willingness to attempt to make everything as safe as possible, this sport and many others require athletes to put themselves at personal risk. We love football and attempt to block out the pain and suffering others must endure to entertain us. We love racing yet at times must deal with the catastrophe that can happen when horses and humans travel at high speeds and in close quarters.

We can try to make life safer, but I suspect despite all of the injuries and all of the warnings, our players will accept the risks and our society will enjoy its entertainment.