Why are we so fascinated by clips of athletes being injured? In the whole long history of televised sports, infamous injuries loom just as large as the most glorious highlights. Bo Jackson goes down after a seemingly routine tackle, never to play football again. Joe Theismann’s vertical leg goes suddenly horizontal on the grass. Decades later, we still watch these moments from multiple angles. Why punish ourselves like this? Injury footage is deeply unpleasant. It shows a human in overwhelming pain, not only physical but emotional. Sometimes it shows the end of a career. And yet we can hardly look away. We watch in close-up and slow motion, looking for the precise moment the ruined body part failed. Afterward, talking heads discuss the injury’s wider ramifications, the footage playing in an excruciating loop behind them. It’s the sports equivalent of disaster footage, and we are drawn to it with the same masochistic hunger.
Maybe our interest is simply a question of news value. Major athletes, today, are essentially global corporations; their injuries can jeopardize large investments and shift the worldwide flow of capital. On the strength of a single ligament, thousands of fortunes rise or fall. To study an injury is simply to keep yourself informed of a significant world event.
This does not explain, however, why we watch these clips so many times. For news-gathering purposes, once or twice would be plenty. There is something, it seems, that exceeds the news value. A little frisson, an itch we are scratching. What is it?
Maybe it’s simply schadenfreude. The Golden State Warriors are a dynasty, and Kevin Durant has become their most polarizing player. Some large percentage of the sports-watching world was inevitably going to rejoice at seeing them fail. But that doesn’t explain why neutral fans — and even Golden State fans — would watch the clip repeatedly, too. And it doesn’t explain why, aside from an initial giddy cheer from opposing Toronto Raptors fans, the reaction to Durant’s injury was almost universally sympathetic. The rapper Drake, standing in his signature courtside spot, seemed so determined to show everyone how distressed he was that he looked as if he might pull one of his own muscles.
Our interest seems to go beyond mere pettiness or curiosity. In fact, I think it goes all the way down to the fundamental nature of play. Everyone knows that sports — with their silly uniforms and rituals and grids and balls — are arbitrary. They are children’s games that we elevate to the status of global religions. We do this because sports help us harness an energy we have trouble finding in our everyday lives. They offer us, in a very pure form, endless parables of struggle and triumph — victories over all of our most horrible enemies: time, gravity, the resistance of other human beings. Sports create patterns out of chaos, meaning out of blankness. They allow us to watch people performing, in real time, right at the edges of human ability. We watch athletes travel to distant realms of exhaustion, urgency, terror and joy that the rest of us — trapped in the mundanity of paperwork and errands — cannot access. They are sort of experiential astronauts. And in order to perform this sacred function, we expect them to sacrifice their schedules, diets and bodies.