With six minutes and 39 seconds remaining in the first-half of Sunday’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Midwest regional final between Duke University and the University of Louisville, Cardinals guard Kevin Ware leaped to block a shot from Blue Devils guard Tyler Thornton, and landed awkwardly on his right leg. The results were horrific. Scream of agony. Compound fracture. Hands over heads of teammates. Looks of terror on the faces of opponents.
Ware’s leg had broken in a manner reminiscent of Joe Theisman’s career-ending injury after getting sacked by Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor on November 18th, 1985, or Eduardo da Silva’s left fibula being broken while playing in a match on February 23rd, 2008. Bone was visible, and body parts were bending in a fashion for which they were not meant to bend.
It seems to be of secondary importance to note that Louisville somehow went on to win the game and advance to the Final Four. However, they did, thus fulfilling Ware’s request as the player was being transported to Methodist Hospital with two fractures in his right leg. After surgery on Sunday evening, Ware was resting comfortably, posting photos through social media and speaking with teammates. He now faces at least an entire year of recovery.
When something as traumatic as this injury occurs with such a visibly gruesome aftermath, there is no easy way of handling it for broadcasters and news sources. Remaining respectful while informing an audience can be a slippery bar of soap. CBS’s game coverage consisted of several replays in the immediate aftermath – so many in fact that there were multiple cries from those following on Twitter to stop – but then none at all accompanying any reference to the incident afterwards. Greg Gumbel even announced at half-time that there would be no more replays. Meanwhile, equal numbers of sports news programs have and have not shown the incident to viewers, just as similar amounts of written reports online have and have not included a clip of the play.
There is a picture currently available through Getty Images that shows Ware’s bone sticking out of his leg, but a more tasteful photograph with a blanket laid over top of the exposed bit of skeleton seems to be the more accepted image among photo editors. In the world of animated images, the majority of the individuals and websites engaged in GIF-making refused to capture the moving image for posterity.
We’ve made an executive decision not to gif that Kevin Ware injury.
— SB Nation (@sbnation) March 31, 2013
There exists an interesting contradiction between television coverage of the incident and web-based coverage. However, it’s not what one might immediately expect. Yes, television showed the replay multiple times. No, several online sports media organizations chose to not exploit the moment. This isn’t the equivalent of journalistic standards at TMZ not allowing them to report something with which the New York Times is running. It’s a simple understanding of the tone that’s in part created by the medium being used.
Visible evidence, even of the horrific variety that CBS aired, is necessary to inform an audience of the source of the reaction that they were watching. Of course, it’s possible to go too far in showing a gruesome injury from several angles. However, it’s also possible to go too far the other way. In the name of protecting their audience from potentially disturbing images, CNN’s blurring out of the broken leg only serves to pique curiosity of the spectacle of the injury, rather than call attention to it as a whole.
A broadcast represents the visualization of a sporting event. Replays are used in part to emphasize important details of that visual narrative. An animated GIF is a bit different. It represents a different type of medium, one that exploits a single moment from an entire event with repetitive viewing. It’s most often used as a source of humor, or at least irreverence.
Presenting a disturbing injury in this fashion would’ve been distasteful based on the content and sentiment typically presented and expressed through this medium. The tone typically associated with the medium creates a different set of standards, and I believe that both broadcast and online forms of media organizations handled the situation well. Or at least, as well as they could within the confines of expectations and presentation.
There’s an added element of exploitation that sports media seems painfully unaware of in its coverage of college sports: the athletes remain unpaid. The men and women participating in athletics for their universities, conferences and the NCAA as a whole, risk injuries like Ware’s without the benefit of income for the risks they take. Yes, there are insurance contingencies in place to protect Ware from costly medical and rehabilitation bills. However, it’s also completely allowable – assuming that Ware’s scholarship is yearly – for Louisville to not renew his scholarship. It’s unlikely considering a potential public relations and recruiting backlash, but it’s entirely within the rules governing the academic athletics.
Furthering this injustice is the amount of money involved in broadcasting these unpaid athletes. Such a factor might cause one to slow their roll in exhibiting something that stands to be as exploitative as an injury of this nature. It’s good that CBS offered replays to inform without exploiting the most horrific aspects. It’s also good that the option exists of viewing the horrific results of a sports replay, and good that it isn’t supplied by certain organizations through certain methods.
It all represents an awareness to tastefulness, even if the greater awareness that such an incident should prompt continues to be ignored.