Horsing Around with the Law

Shoemaker’s Unpopular Lawsuits

Bill Shoemaker had reached the zenith of his profession: He was the world’s top race-winning jockey. After 41 years in the saddle, he had just decided to make the transition from jockey to trainer . . . when disaster struck.

Driving along a California highway one night, Shoemaker’s Ford Bronco veered off the road and plunged down a 40-foot embankment. The former jockey was left paralyzed, doomed to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Immediately there was an outpouring of public sympathy for the hero of the racetrack. Horse owners practically lined up to give him good horses to launch his new career as a trainer.

But today, almost as quickly, sympathy for Bill Shoemaker has evaporated. Why? In a grim effort to wring money out of his tragedy, Shoemaker has initiated several lawsuits.

He’s suing the state of California because the road he was driving on didn’t have guardrails. He’s suing the hospital that treated him because he claims some of his paralysis was caused by incompetent treatment. And he’s collected an out-of-court settlement from the Ford Motor Company, after charging that the Bronco is unsafe.

There’s only one little detail he’s not talking about very much. Blood tests taken right after the accident showed Shoemaker’s blood-alcohol level to be more than twice the legal limit.

In short, he was driving drunk.

This could have been a prime opportunity to drive home a lesson to his countless fans across the country. Shoemaker could have said, Look, I made a mistake. Don’t ever drink and drive. See what happened to me.

But instead he gave in to the culture of blame. With an aggressive lawyer at his side, he apparently let himself be talked into going for the deep pockets.

The only hopeful side to this pitiful story is that the public is outraged about it. When the Los Angeles Times broke the story of Shoemaker’s cynical use of the court system, the newspaper was deluged with angry letters.

Come on, Shoemaker, just admit you messed up, people wrote. Stop trying to make everybody else pay for your mistake, others said.

A report in the Washington Post mourned that Shoemaker has tarnished his “image.” But to put the problem in those terms is to trivialize it. The issue isn’t the man’s image, the issue is his character.

It takes character, it takes courage, to face your friends, your family, your fans, and utter those simple words, I was wrong. But strong character is sadly lacking in today’s culture, where we are actually encouraged not to take responsibility for our own actions. We have entered what columnist John Leo calls “the golden age of exoneration,” when people are loathe to take responsibility and eager to pin their problems on someone else.

The secret of the Gospel message is simple: Real spiritual growth begins when we stand before God and say, I have done wrong, I am a sinner.

When we face ourselves honestly before our Maker, we are less likely to fall into the trap of endless finger-pointing, blaming, and lawsuits.

Face God with honesty, and you will face your fellow human beings with integrity.


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