Warning: this article contains graphic descriptions and videos of traumatic injuries.
Growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the ’80s and ’90s, I was well aware of football’s baddest player. Lawrence Taylor was a Tar Heel before he terrorized the National Football League (NFL), and the combination of size, speed, and ferocity Taylor brought to the game hadn’t been seen before nor has it since. A decade after his retirement, the birth of YouTube allowed new generations of football fans to discover his most famous victim. In prime time on Monday Night Football, Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, shattering Theismann’s right tibia and fibula.
It remains a compelling video, with a suspenseful lead-up as Theismann catches a flea-flicker toss and prepares to pass. The sack, at normal speed, happens too fast to see much detail. But the grotesqueness is evident in the grainy, slow-motion replay of Taylor leaping into the air and landing on Theismann’s leg, snapping his shin halfway between the knee and ankle. Onscreen, there was something so simple about it. One moment, the white-socked, lower leg formed a single line, as it should; the next, it formed two lines connected at an angle, as it should not. I remember reacting with the usual recoiling grimace, yet not quite able to look away. But football’s innate potential for the grotesque is what draws us to it in the first place.
On November 18, 2018, 33 years to the day after Theismann’s career-ending injury, Washington quarterback Alex Smith was sacked by Houston’s J.J. Watt and Kareem Jackson. Like Taylor, Watt fell on the quarterback’s lower right leg and broke it in two, which drew comparisons with the Taylor-Theismann collision, prompting a collective look back on a canonical moment in the history of traumatic sports injuries. But unlike its predecessor, Smith’s injury footage was immediately captured, cut, and spread throughout the social media-sphere for massive, immediate consumption.
The Watt-Smith collision is yet another entry in what has become a distinct sports sub-genre: the spectacle of gruesome injuries. In the context of expanded broadcasting and social media distribution, gruesome injuries are more likely than ever to be seen by willing and even eager viewers, consistent with a long history of fans’ fascination with bodies and disfiguration.
From Gladiators to the Gridiron: A History of Gruesome Sports Injuries
In their classic text Quest for Excitement, sociologists Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning traced the evolution of sports’ physical violence from past to present. In the ancient games of Greece and Rome, there existed much greater violence than in modern counterparts. For example, boxing included limb dislocation and eye-gouging. Deaths in competition were expected.
Modern games (dating back to the 19th century) have featured stricter rules. The authors situate this evolution within the larger “civilizing process,” which has rendered spectacles of explicit violence taboo. But despite sports’ domestication, gruesome sports injuries continue to provide fans a spectacle that both horrifies and excites.
Lately, the spectacle has, to an increasing degree, included the grotesque. Recent gruesome injuries include NFL tight end Tyler Eifert’s broken ankle, by which his right foot was turned straight away from the other. In the past two seasons, National Basketball Association (NBA) players Gordon Hayward and Isaiah Canaan have suffered the same injury, with similar results, though theirs were perhaps less gruesome than Paul George’s open (bone-exposing) fracture of his tibia and fibula during a 2014 exhibition game with Team USA.
In the National Hockey League (NHL), this season has so far witnessed Vincent Trocheck’s broken ankle and Michael Grabner’s eye injury after a stick to the face. And, of course, the emergent sport of mixed martial arts has featured its share of body trauma, from superstar Anderson Silva’s broken tibia/fibula in 2013, to lesser-known Harvey Park’s open finger fracture a couple of months ago. These more recent events join the canon of videoed trauma, including NBA player Kermit Washington’s face-smashing punch of Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977, NFL player Jack Tatum’s paralysis-inducing hit on Darryl Stingley the next year, and NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk’s near death after a skate blade cut his jugular vein on the ice in 1989.
Taken altogether, viral sports injuries seem to be identifiable by a couple of central features. The first is bodily distortion: parts (feet, hands, fingers, etc.) are bent in abnormal directions or deformed. The second might be termed externalization: elements that are typically hidden inside the body, such as bone and blood, are suddenly externalized and visible. The most grotesque injuries tend to feature both, as reflected by Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware’s “shocking,” “awful,” “gruesome” open fracture of his leg during a game against Duke in the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
It is difficult to gauge whether these kinds of injuries have become more common in recent decades. However, what is clear is that a transformed mass-sports mediascape has changed how these injury events, as audio-visual spectacles, are circulated for consumption. Game action is ever more likely to be captured on video, due to expanded broadcasting and the ubiquity of handheld devices. And through digital technologies, home users are able to record, edit, and distribute these videos through social-media networks. Thus despite a centuries-long, rules-driven effort to minimize (if not eliminate) sports grotesquerie, spectators are able to selectively view those events.
Yet there remains the question of why we seek videos of gruesome injuries. It helps to look beyond sports to the history of body displays. As documented by Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Nadja Durbach, bodily disfigurement has long been converted into spectacle, particularly in the form of 19th-century “freak shows.” Seeing “freaks” allows spectators to collectively consolidate their comparative normality. Thomson notes that in the 20th century, as bodies were generally placed under stricter control and discipline (through industrial and service labor, fitness movements, etc.), “freaks” became ever more fascinating as “embodiments of error.”
In this context, sports-injury events span the entire spectrum of bodily freakishness. Elite, athletic bodies reflect maximum, disciplined performance, yet in an instant they can be converted into “embodiments of error.” It is a fascinating before-and-after juxtaposition—an extreme reversal of the dominant narrative in which sports make bodies go, per the Olympics motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” And the spectacle of trauma extends well beyond the injured athlete. It inevitably includes the expressed shock of those present, from players to fans, as they publicly work through the emotional trauma of bearing witness. Nearly as memorable as Kevin Ware’s open fracture was the reaction of his Louisville teammates on the bench, who had a literal front-row view of the gruesome injury and collectively recoiled in horror. For those of us not in the arena, from wherever and whenever we watched, we vicariously shared in this intense emotional experience.
The spectacle of gruesome injuries, then, offers a glimpse of the grotesque that has, amid the so-called “civilizing process” of the last few centuries, become increasingly taboo. Despite greater stigma against public spectacles of explicit violence, the emergence of (social-) mediated imagery has brought grotesque events, including in sports, back into view via our screens. And, of course, taboo is key to why we seek out the latest gruesome injury video. Unlike the buzzer-beater and touchdown pass, we’re not really supposed to watch that foot dislocation. So we do.
On the first Saturday night of this year, I found myself surrounded by screens at a sports bar. In between pool shots, I looked up at a television showing the Dallas-Seattle NFL playoff game. Allen Hurns, the Cowboys’ wide receiver, was being carted off the field with his left leg in an air cast. By the time I got home that night, the injury was making the sports media rounds. After catching a pass over the middle, Hurns was tackled by a defender who rolled onto his ankle, breaking it and essentially turning Hurns’ foot backward. He pounded the turf as his teammates clutched their facemasks and walked away. While play-by-play announcer Joe Buck didn’t seem to initially understand what had happened, upon the slow-motion replay in which Hurns’ foot was turned around, Buck exclaimed, “Oh, eye-eee! Good lord.” Then gathered himself: “Back after this.”
We’ve entered an age in which, as part of the continuous mass-mediated wave of sports imagery, traumatic injury is a recurring event. League administrators and their partners have actively tapped into the social mediascape, creating content for their fans to like, retweet, and watch on repeat. However, the NFL and others cannot dictate which content is circulated, and gruesome injuries have gone viral alongside the usual highlight plays. While leagues might be concerned about the spread of videos featuring their athletes being traumatically hurt, those videos do keep eyes on the games, and they will continue to be produced (even, in some cases, by the leagues themselves).
And therein lies the tension point of this moment. Despite notions of “civility” by which the spectacle of gruesome injury might be seen as savage sportsploitation, there exists an ongoing fascination with this very spectacle. In fact, the demands of civility may drive people to seek it out, allowing a taste of grotesque stimulation from a safe distance. On colorful screens we watch the leg break, the blood flow, the bone appear. We grimace and perhaps turn away, just a little—and then we click on the next video.