London, England
Monday 16th April 2012
Well, there was nothing "routine" about that "normal" Grand National/FA Cup Semi Final weekend, after all!  The Grand National was the most closely contested race in years & the FA Cup Semi Finals were awash with emotion & controversy.  Meanwhile, the horse racing was matched for it's finely competitive margins by the most exciting Chinese F1 Grand Prix I've seen in years & the Premier League programme was strewn with many hotly contested decisions, which matched those played out at Wembley.

Understandably, most of the debates that have rumbled on long since the winner's post, final whistles & chequered flag had been reached, have focussed on how several of the respective sports need to review certain crucial aspects of their DNA in order to retain their widespread appeal.  

In stark contrast to the elation experienced by the owners, trainers & jockey of National-winner, Neptune Collange, the owner of According to Pete was left heartbroken as the horse suffered a fractured leg & had to be destroyed after falling at Becher's Brook.  Peter Nelson has described the mount as "part of the family" & in contrast to many of the larger, more established stables, Nelson had reared According to Pete since he was a foal, keeping him in a stable behind the garage of the family home & building a small paddock for him to run around in.  

Recent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised was another to sustain fatal injuries, after falling at the 8th fence & following those of Dooney's Gate & Ornais in the corresponding meet last year, the deaths have led for many to question whether the race should be allowed to go ahead at all, or at least demand that it be seriously reviewed.  However, the British Horse Racing Authority have countered calls by the RSPCA, who stated that the deaths are "totally unacceptable" & should precipitate "an urgent examination" of the race, by arguing that the "BHA takes its responsibility of looking after the welfare of horse & rider very seriously". 

In much less tragic events, thousands of football fans were nevertheless left outraged as goals & penalties that never were, were awarded, changing the complexions of the games in which they occurred.  The long mooted calls for goal line technology & player citing, to prevent such errors of judgement & episodes of blatant gamesmanship, have accompanied the loud noises of disappointment voiced at the standard of refereeing in the professional game as a whole.

Now it would be easy to point the finger at individuals & suspend great sporting events in hasty displays of wrong-righting, however I feel that it is time for the sports to step out with their establishments & look at other professional governing bodies for inspiration.  For too long the counter-argument for overhauling the rule books has been that of history & tradition, but if the rest of the World stood as staunchly to those two pillars of time, we would still be riding horses as a means of transport, not sport & fast-food would be the term used to describe antelope, not over-the-counter convenience.

Given my personal history of having worked in various sports, with the aim of gleaning the best of what each environment has to offer, maybe that mentality comes easy to me.  However, having observed how countless practices, far removed from the law-making, are so ingrained in the culture of each game for no other reason than "well, that's the way we've always done it", I'm far from shocked as to how foreign it appears for those in the board rooms to grasp the nettle & ditch their pride.

In my opinion, football should look across to rugby to adopt the citing rules, whereby occurrences of cheating & rule breaking can be reported for post-match review by an independent board of judiciary.  Suspensions & fines can then be retrospectively levelled at teams & individuals, thus removing the immediate pressure on the officials, whilst eliminating the scenes of baying players surrounding the referee.  Meanwhile, on the occasion that football did take a lead from the oval ball, demanding that the captain alone has the authority to discuss the rulings with the referee, the powers that be have not been firm enough in policing the change.

Yet, the referees are far from blameless.  However, given the number of players that are leaving the game after failing to make the grade following years spent receiving expensive footballing educations in the academy system, is there not a conveyor belt population of young men that would jump at the chance to continue their involvement in the game in return for a healthy annual salary? Why are these fit, game-savvy individuals not being snapped up by the FA & fast-tracked through an appropriate training programme?  Surely this would go some way to appease the army of managers, screaming their frustrations at the lack of game-specific understanding displayed by the current bank of officials, none of whom have never played the sport at an elite level.

The technological advances of cricket & tennis should act as the inspiration for football's goal line technology.  These two sports have game-tested the multiple-camera systems for several years now & incorporate their use in conjunction with human judgement.  When so much money is at stake in the current day & age, the cost implications are a drop in the financial fact, the only losers I see here are the hosts of the radio phone-in shows, which act as a shoulder to cry on for the hundreds of supporters around the country who feel the need to vent their frustrations, game after game, week after week.

Meanwhile horse-racing should take inspiration from Formula 1, who driven (please, excuse the pun) by the pilot's organisation & supported by the teams, has invested heavily to review the safety of the courses, the cars & the clothing the pilots wear.  As a result, Ayrton Senna was the last driver to lose his life at the wheel of a Formula 1 car, on May 1st, 1994.  Now, I'm not saying the changes happened over night in F1, nor that it would be as easy to implement safety measures in one sport in comparison to another but the only way that the loud voices of protest will ever be pacified, is by ensuring that the BHA, race course committees, horse owners, trainers & jockeys sit down to discuss the matter of safety with medics, vets & even engineers.  Regular audit, brainstorming  & review will enable ongoing progress towards reducing the risks incurred in the sport, whilst maintaining the excitement of the spectacle.  No sport will ever be completely safe but every sport needs to do all within its power to eliminate the avoidable factors that contribute to those risks.

Other sports should jump on the bandwagon too.  The NFL's 4 match ban for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance is appallingly lenient when you consider the players are role models to millions of children in North America.  Get caught twice & you suffer the inconvenience of an 8 game ban!  Now I know football has stopped short of fully embracing WADA's doping control legislation but the punishments dished out by the sport's authorities to the likes of Adrian Mutu & Mark Bosnich have proved a prominent deterrent.  Meanwhile the lack of positive tests reported in professional rugby are likely due to the inadequate amount of testing in their sport - in this instance, rugby should be taking a leaf out of football's book.  

Tennis authorities should review the duration of their professional season & acknowledge the importance of a substantial close season on the health & fitness of the players under their stewardship.  Maybe then would we see a greater depth of competition, with players outside the top group, those that can't afford to pay for conditioning coaches & therapists to travel with them, benefiting from the extra preparation time.

It's just my opinion but whilst I love so many of the sports that have been dreamt up over the years, I can't help feeling frustrated that so many of them waste massive resources busying themselves reinventing the wheel, instead of collaborating with their counterparts.  Others inhabiting their various chambers of power, don't even acknowledge the need for change, locking themselves away in their ivory towers, citing "tradition & history" as an excuse for impotence & apathy.  Couldn't we all benefit from jumping down off our pedestals, removing our heads from the clouds & looking outside of our comfortable board rooms to take the time to seek debate on these commonly critical aspects of our respective beautiful games with each other?  


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