I spent Friday evening way up and out of the reach out of cell phone towers at an organic apple orchard in Rockton, Illinois at the wedding of my wife’s friend. After the reception — around 11pm — we drove to our hotel near the Wisconsin/Illinois border in the rain, the most pressing thought on our minds whether or not we should order pizza. But as we settled into our Best Western king-sized bed and maintained pizza-free discipline, I was sideswiped by Twitter and the non-specific descriptions of Paul George’s injury.
I scrambled to find out what had happened. Given the tone and timbre of the reactions across Twitter, email, and text, my first thought was a spine injury. Perhaps he had crashed headfirst into the stanchion or floor and lay on the ground motionless. To this day I remember the chill that went through my 11-year-old body back in 1991 when a Detroit Lions player named Mike Utley was paralyzed in a November game at the Silverdome. Until I saw Utely’s unmoving body and began to comprehend the gravity of the situation, I didn’t understand someone could hurt themselves that badly in sports. It’s one of those memories that left a powerful imprint on me for obvious reasons and something that I flashed back to when I first saw the breathlessness associated with George’s injury.
A few years after Utley was paralyzed, I was a freshman in high school, playing basketball in gym class. It was the first Monday after our freshman season and I was elated to have a day without practice. Gym class was almost over and just a handful of us stayed, unwilling to trade those final minutes for early arrival at our next class. Everyone was trying and failing to dunk, and when my turn came, I planted my left foot to elevate towards the rim and my left knee blew out. Maybe it was Osgood-Schlatter from growing too fast or maybe stress fractures from constant pounding on unforgiving concrete. Whatever the case, my leg was broken before I ever hit the ground. Without thinking, I put out my left arm to break my fall and instead dislocated my wrist. When I hit the floor, I was on my back, confused as to what had just happened. My friends stood around and I heard their laughter as they thought I had clumsily bit the dust, but the laughter faded as the realization of what had happened set in. Immediately above and below my left knee was puffy swelling about 1.5-times the size of my right leg. My left wrist and arm were a mangled mess and appeared even worse for wear than my swollen leg. My body was already in some state of shock and I lay there sweating and swearing, confused and angry, upset and self-aware. I even remember melodramatically asking the emergency responder if I’d ever play basketball again as he repeatedly stabbed me in the arm, failing over and over to find a vein sufficient for the IV.
Eventually I found out it was a leg injury that George had suffered. People were comparing it to the hideous, career-altering injuries suffered by Kevin Ware and Shaun Livingston. And I knew I shouldn’t want to see it, but I also didn’t not want to see it. ESPN.com’s links to the story didn’t show the injury, but with Sportscenter on, I think it was Neil Everett that gave plenty of advance notice that they were about to show the replay. It felt kind of dirty and voyeuristic to want to see the injury, but my curiosity won out. It wasn’t out of any sick sense of pleasure that I watched, but almost an obligation to see what everyone else had seen. I made sure my wife was watching with me because … I’m not really sure why, but it was important to me that she watched too. And when it happened, when those lower leg bones snapped so violently and unnaturally, I reflexively grabbed her arm and cringed and felt her body tense up. We both made the kind of noises people make when they see something we all identify as painful or freakishly unnatural in a very, very bad way. And then it was done.
It’s shitty and tragic in the same ways Derrick Rose’s and Kobe Bryant’s injuries have been – maybe worse than Kobe’s just because of the age difference. It’s gruesome and stomach-turning in the way Ware’s or Livingston’s were. But it has the potential to be as disastrous and career-limiting as the chronic injuries of Greg Oden or Bill Walton or Brandon Roy. Any injury, particularly the calamitous and chronic, has the potential to be a tragedy in the theater of pro sports. They’re understood as occupational hazards, but that does nothing to lessen the blows to fans, media, teams, and most importantly the players who get hurt. When these freak injuries first happen is when we’re most susceptible to the freak out because we know so little – hence my melodramatic, “Will I ever play basketball again?” question to the EMT.
The obvious hope with any and all sports injuries is that the player’s health is not in jeopardy. Mike Utley was not OK and will never walk again. While he’s maintained a rich and full post-injury existence, that one play on November 17, 1991 has forever altered his quality of life. I’m OK. Nearly 20 years later, my left arm and leg are still much skinnier and weaker than my right. My left knee is easily fatigued and occasionally requires ice after playing ball, but despite the ugliness of my left wrist, there’s minimal impact. Livingston has been able to reconstruct his career and while his own catastrophic left knee injury certainly altered the course of it, he just signed a three-year, $16-million contract, so it’s safe to say he’s rebounded nicely which is saying something given there was a worst case scenario that included amputation. Meanwhile, 23-year-old New York Giants running back and formerly highly touted prospect, David Wilson, just found out his career is likely over due to repeated neck and spinal injuries. Without comparing the severity of injuries, collective reactions to the shock factor of George’s injury appear to be significantly more feverish than that of the more severe, yet less gruesome injury of Wilson.
In this popular culture where TV shows celebrate the occasionally hideous and painful accidents of what appear to be unnecessarily risky or crazy people, most of us have seen plenty of cringe-inducing accidents – so often including a man’s groin violently crashing into some immovable object. Jackass, Tosh.O, and Ridiculousness are each cut from a similar cloth that taps into and sensationalizes the natural human urge to turn our heads and gawk when we see car accidents. It’s that same inborn urge that led me to watch George’s replay. We are voyeurs and as our culture has become a mass of video documentarians, what’s on the screen can even be confused for what’s happening in front of our faces. But the footage and documenting exists beyond just the sensational and tabloid; there is purpose to all this accidental gore. In my high school journalism class, I recall a horrific photo of a teenage boy in Queens who had been impaled on a fence after trying to climb it to retrieve a baseball. The question for us would-be journalists was whether or not the photo should’ve run on the New York Post’s front page. Unlike the audience tuning into Jackass, the readers of the Post or the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (which also ran the photo on its front page) unfolded their morning papers unprepared for the image that confronted them: a teenage boy with the sharp spike of a fence cleanly impaled through this cheek.
For the Worcester paper, the reaction from its readers was overwhelmingly negative. This was before email and social media, and the paper’s readers flooded it with calls and letters. Then-editor-in-chief Kenneth J. Botty wrote,
We stepped on a hornet’s nest last Monday when we published, at the bottom of Page One in the morning editions of the Telegram & Gazette, a graphic photo of a young man impaled on a fence …. While we did make an error in news judgment, we did not publish the photo in an attempt to be sensational, to sell papers or to offend our readers …. as a trained newspaper editor [the desk copy editor], he also understood that the pictures were strong, that they conveyed the essence of the story more than even the most skillfully constructed writing could.
Despite the increased access to images and video conveying violence and injuries, our complex relationship to potentially offensive material is nothing new. But as it has become more pervasive, how we consume and react to these images or videos continues to evolve. With the exception of the viewer who finds humor or pleasure in the pain and agony of others, our reactions have become uniquely personal based on what we’ve seen and experienced – and even this is complex as the Jackass genre reveals. This is to say there isn’t a right or wrong reaction to George’s injury. Some may be moved to immediate tears while others may look at the practical implications to the Pacers, the Central Division, the Eastern Conference, and Soloman Hill and CJ Miles or how it impacts the Pacers’ cap situation.
Paul George’s future is going to be filled with long, long hours of painful and frustrating rehab and even with all the blood, sweat, and tears he’ll pour into his recovery, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever be the same player. That sucks. Unequivocally it’s a shitty thing. But having sat in a full arm and full leg cast for nearly two months and felt a deep, unquenchable pain in the core of my healing bones, I know the hardest part is to come for Paul George. So hopefully when we’re out on Friday nights or at weddings with our significant others and we’re deliberating over inconsequential things like night caps or late night pizzas, we’ll toss up a prayer or acknowledgment of some kind to the Big Naismith in the Sky that George’s recovery will be as swift and clean, his return inevitable.