It’s an ethical question, not a legal one, and I want your opinion.

What do the Grand National Steeplechase and a weekly New York Times column on ethics have to do with each other? And why should we care?


The 125th Grand National was run over four-and-a-half miles and 30 monstrous fences at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool, England, on Saturday. Forty horses faced the starter; only 15 managed to finish the grueling race. Two horses, including this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and early Grand National favorite Synchronised, were euthanized after falls. Those deaths brought the number of equine fatalities in the Grand National to a dozen over the last 10 years.

A couple of weeks earlier, in the Magazine section of the Times, Ariel Kaminer’s column, The Ethicist, fielded a question about the ethics of watching professional football. The inquiry was sent in to the column by a reader who wondered whether it was ethical even to watch football, given the growing amount of evidence that players run the risk of serious brain injury or death from collisions with each other. A bothersome implication of being a football fan, apparently, is that watching the games each week amounts to an implied endorsement of an unnecessarily dangerous activity.

Kaminer interviewed Michael Gladwell, one of the leading researchers investigating the dangers of concussions in football players—and, somewhat surprisingly, a football fan. Gladwell likened watching the games to being a fan of gladiator combats. He speculated that in 15 years, "no reasonable person will admit to watching football."

The column’s namesake ethicist opined that fans who watch football games, whether in person or on television, are "participating in the mass phenomenon" and by doing so "reinforce on-field violence as a cultural norm." This support gives the sport "that much less incentive to reform itself."

Horses as Gladiators?

I like steeplechasing and the Grand National. A visit to Aintree almost 40 years ago when I worked for The Blood-Horse was my first of many international trips. I also like flat racing and Standardbreds; eventing, show jumping, and reining; polo and horse shows. But I know that anything involving horses is potentially dangerous for both the human athletes and the equine ones, some activities much more so than others, and I always watch with trepidation.

It never occurred to me, though, that watching horse sports might be an endorsement of the status quo. Or that watching might mean that I didn’t care about the horses. Or that millions of people watching the Grand National, or a high-level three-day event, or the Kentucky Derby, might destroy any incentive for those in charge to make the game safer for horses and riders.

There is no way to make horse sports entirely risk-free, at least not without doing away with the activities entirely. That might be the ultimate goal of some animal rights groups, but it’s an extreme result that is outside the mainstream. The question is not whether reducing the risk of injury is a worthy goal; the question is how.

Is The Ethicist right? Is it unethical for someone who is genuinely interested in promoting the safety of horses and riders to watch horse sports?