We’ve come a long way since the days of the Roman Empire — our pants are tighter, our Us are rounder — but the entertainment industry doesn’t seem to have changed. We’re not quite throwing Russell Crowes into the ring to fight ‘til the death (although that Les Mis performance had us at least considering the option), but we still take an unholy amount of pleasure in watching people suffer. Reality television sprouts from the grounds of schadenfreude, with franchises devoted to chronicling hopeful men and women as they fail and creating deplorable caricatures which fend off self-betterment; today’s serial drama is affixed to the colossal decline of tortured greats. But these are fictional characters (and celebrities), so there’s no real victim. This sadistic sense of amusement only presents itself for all its inherent problems when turned toward the human race — the latest example being Louisville Cardinals guard Kevin Ware.
As you probably already know, the college sophomore snapped his leg during Sunday’s game against Duke. The jarring injury, which caused Ware’s bone to permeate his shin, elicited a collective “OHHH!” from the legion of fans watching the Eight Elite tourney. Ever since, nary a conversation has gone by without mention of the incident. While it is natural to set our attention on an occurrence so steeply embedded in tragedy and shock value, human nature can only excuse so much. What we’re hard pressed to see forgiven is our jokes, our tweets, and most of all, our ceaseless sharing and rewatching of Ware’s accident. We really need to cut that out.
Ware is hardly an outlier in this sort of circumstance — the American public cooks a banquet from televised tragedies whenever the opportunity is presented. A similar fascination surrounded Joe Theismann‘s 1985 Monday Night Football injury, the death of Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just prior to the 2010 opening ceremonies, and FoxNews’ on-camera suicide last year. The sadder or more grueseome the instance, the more of a fixation it draws.
The ramifications of this are twofold — the first victim, of course, is Ware. A young athlete suffering physical pains, a suspended college basketball career, and now the daunting connotation of this freak accident. While Ware heads through recovery, America maintains its unblinking eye on his moment of catastrophe.
But we’re not only harming Ware here, we’re running our own appreciation of human tragedy through the mill. We shouldn’t take a grotesque form of pleasure, or strive to, in watching the physical injuries of another person — in wanting to watch this video and prolonging the conversation about the details, we’re fleeing from our evolutionary predeliction to think that bones jutting out of skin is gross and upsetting.
In keeping the Ware video on loop and by including it in every other email chain and tweet you create today, we’re stripping the incident of its gravity. We’re robbing Ware of his duress, transforming it instead to our malformed eye candy. And it’s a slippery slope. We find it easy to deprive fictional characters of our sympathy, sure. Reality stars? Don’t give them a second thought. But athletes, college-aged athletes especially, indicate a frightening downfall. When are we able to care again? When can we look at someone undertaking tragedy and think of his or her own personal horrors and pains, taking them on for ourselves in some conceivable way? Do instances like these indicate a lost ability to empathize with spotlit sufferers? Or are we just so fascinated by seeing horrifying events that we cast aside Ware’s suffering to appease our own curiosity?
It might seem like we’re making a bit much of a broken bone — Ware will recover. He is slated to return to basketball in a year, where he might well go on to a long and prosperous career. But odds are, these aren’t the sentiments being shared. Odds are, the focus of all Ware-focal conversations will be the moment of injury, not the recovery. And the link to that terrible video will be shared not with an air of sympathy and compassion, but with an invigorated, “You’ve got to watch this!” When, really, you don’t have to.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: Sam Riche/Getty Images]