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Why We Can’t Look Away From Horrific Sports Injuries

Last week, Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the better players in the NBA, suffered a horrific, season-ending ankle injury — in the first game of the season dampening what was supposed to be an exciting, title-contending campaign for the Celtics.

At least, I read that the injury was horrific. Thanks to a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia, Hayward’s foot was apparently dangling from the rest of his leg as if held by a string. I wouldn’t know; I refused to watch the footage, thought it was shared constantly on Twitter and by certain lunatic coworkers who urged me to watch it.

I’m this way with all infamously gruesome sports injuries.

Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theismann’s leg live on Monday Night Football? Never seen it.

Willis McGahee getting his knee ligaments obliterated in the 2002 College Football National Championship game? I suffered through the slow-motion replays when I watched the game live, and have never attempted to revisit them.

Kevin Ware suffering a compound fracture so severe that his tibia was sticking out of his fucking leg? I successfully avoided seeing that injury until last Friday, when I was conducting research for this article and stumbled across a photo of it.

Click on those hyperlinks at your own risk. Although I’m sure some of you will. Because for every guy like me who can’t resist watching something so grisly, there’s another who can’t get enough of the on-field gore — replaying footage of these injuries like the Zapruder film.

Gazing at these kinds of sports injuries is a more extreme version of the lighthearted schadenfreude we engage in when watching Jackass, where we delighted in adult male doofuses taking shots to the nuts and tasing each other.

But shows like Jackass (and, to a less visceral extent, America’s Funniest Home Videos) operate under the tacit understanding that, despite whatever harm the jackasses might inflict on themselves and each other, they’re ultimately fine. The pain is always temporary and the injuries are never life-altering, so we’re free to laugh.

The scenes also act as a kind of release valve — a way to dabble in violence and pain but with the benefit of distance and without any of the weighty consequences. “On some level, people get a vicarious purging of their own aggressions as they watch others being aggressive,” says Judy Kuriansky, an adjunct professor in the clinical psychology department at Columbia University Teachers College. “This is especially true with kids. They are drawn to aggression because of the difficulty they have in expressing their own aggression.”

Not surprisingly then, Jackass star Steve-O describes himself as a “professional distraction therapist”:

The world is pretty much fucked. History is a bunch of bad news that’s just going to repeat itself over and over. No matter what we do, we’re doomed. The best we can do is distract ourselves from this terrible reality. I’m the guy who says, “I know the world is terrible. But look at me throw myself off a roof! Look, I’m covered in poo! What’s wrong with me?”

The same holds true (more or less) for why many guys seek out the clip of Hayward’s leg exploding. “These situations allow you to take powerful emotions for a safe spin and almost envision what it would be like if you were in a plane crash, car wreck or other tragic situation — without any negative consequence,” says clinical psychologist Matthew Goldfine.

All of which actually helps instill empathy in the viewer, writes Eric Wilson, author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. “The more we repress the morbid, the more it foments neuroses or psychoses. To achieve wholeness, we must acknowledge our most demonic inclinations. … Once we welcome these unseemly resolves as integral portions of our being, the devils turn into angels. Luke owns the Vader within, offers affection to the actual villain; off comes the scary mask, and there stands a father, loving and in need of love.”

What he seems to be saying is that by watching horrific injuries, people are, on a subconscious level, making themselves whole and achieving a more complete understanding of life.

So if anyone is missing out, it’s those of us who can’t bear to look.