Guest column: Cockfighting shouldn't be a felony

Friday, May 21, 2010

OK, let's try to have a little balance in our views on cockfighting.

It is not my kind of enjoyment, but ... I am a little turned off by the self-righteous tone of animal rights advocates. Is the life of a cockfighting rooster more miserable than a fattened hen who spends her whole life confined to a commercial coop, then has her feet tied to a wire and her head chopped off at Tyson Foods so we can have a healthy diet?

It is well documented that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed cockfighting, and some say Lincoln's nickname, "Honest Abe," was earned, not by walking five miles in the snow to return a book, but by his reputation as a fair referee in cockfighting disagreements.

Alex Haley, in his beloved chronicle "Roots," maintains that his family's fortunes were changed forever by his slave ancestor, "Chicken George," who was given his freedom and property in Henning, Tenn. because of his skill in breeding champion fighting cocks.

If we are honest with ourselves, all this felony designation to cockfighting is really a class thing. If we're talking about a pastime of someone we consider of a lower class than ourselves, we're quick to say enjoying such a "blood sport" should be a felony. If it's something we relatively wealthy folks enjoy - like football, boxing, thoroughbred horse racing, walking horse shows, or the Iroquois Steeplechase, well, if it inflicts a little pain or injury or occasional death, that's OK.

How often do we see newspapers use "blood sport" to describe cockfighting? Like boxing isn't? Like football isn't? What do you think jockeys at the Kentucky Derby do with the whips they carry? When Atlanta hosted the summer Olympics some years back, who did they choose for the high honor of lighting the Olympic flame? It was the great boxer, Muhammad Ali, although he stumbled up there, crippled from head blows he suffered during a long career.

Are we football fans better when we assess the build of a high school kid, guessing how much weight we can put on him in his next few years so we can bulk him up to 280 or 300 pounds and entertain us ... by smashing into other 300-pounders at high rates of speed? It doesn't bother us that the kick-off coverage teams are called the "suicide squads?" Why do football coaches talk about how much depth they have at one position or another? They know that if they make their players perform like we demand, there are going to be a certain number of blown out knees or torn hamstrings. If it's a sport of the wealthy, it's not felonious, it's just good entertainment.

I must admit, my arguments are not as philosophical about this subject as they are personal. I was reared in Newport, so I can't claim to be a country boy, but every Easter season when I was a boy, Butcher and Barker Feed Store in town gave you a brightly colored chick if you bought a 10-cent bag of feed. Most of the "Pinkies" or "Blueies" died in post-Easter cold spells, but the few who survived grew into really mean-spirited roosters. I never knew even one of my friends who ever got a settin' hen.

Have you ever been flogged? Well, it can scare the hell out of you when you are seven or eight years old. I honestly can't remember being actually injured, but when a rooster comes at you with wing dropped and jumps on your leg with loud cackling and wings flapping, I tell you that if I had been old enough to have a heart attack I would have. And these floggings were totally unprovoked. Once Pinky got between me and the safety of our back door, patrolling back and forth like a prison guard, and I had to climb a tree and yell to momma for help.

So, it's not the worst thing in the world if two mean roosters get in a fight and one gets killed. As a matter of fact, I wish it would be a tie and both of them would die.

There, I said it.

Former Lewisburg Mayor Bob Phillips' column first appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel and is published here with permission from both.