That Leg Snap

Kevin Ware’s Broken Leg Will Live On in the Annals of Grisly Injuries

Dr. Kent Sepkowitz on Kevin Ware’s awful broken leg in the Elite Eight—and if such breaks are on the rise.

Michael Conroy/AP

Are more awful injuries happening these days?

The scene when the Louisville Cardinals’ Kevin Ware sustained a compound fracture of the lower right leg Sunday night was so grisly that network television, hardly the world leader in restraint where the vivid and lurid are concerned, opted to stop replaying video of the injury online. Per reports, bone was sticking through the college basketball player’s skin, the exact definition of a compound fracture and any mother’s nightmare.

It’s yet another terrible orthopedic sports injury seen live or placed into e-perpetuity, in a direct line from the famous Joe Theisman leg snap from Monday Night Football (1985) to baseballer and one-time John Birch Society member Dave Dravecky breaking his cancer-treated pitching arm in two while making a pitch (1989), to countless downhill skiing injuries (name any year), to NBA player Shaun Livingston (2007) and college football player Marcus Lattimore last year each bending a knee the wrong way. And let’s not even start on the truly chilling and equally frequent head injuries that have left athletes stunned, dazed, and in some cases, profoundly demented.

It surely is easy to concoct reasons why severe injuries might be increasing in number: bigger players training harder, running faster, all fighting for zillion-dollar contracts and immortality. Plus, the shoes: those who have clowned around and shot a few hoops on a real—not a YMCA—basketball court wearing a real basketball shoe can attest to how sudden the surface feels. You want to stop, you stop. It’s as if new power brakes were installed in your lower legs. Similarly, the various other playing surfaces—grass, dirt, artificial—each come with subspecialty shoes to perform optimally on the pitch and yaw of the surface’s particular frictive covariates. But with better traction can come knees that pop and ankles that snap as the foot halts a bit too fast for the rest of the rumbling body. Even in sports, force equals mass times acceleration (f = ma).

It’s unlikely, however, that the number of wince-worthy injuries has increased. Athletes are quite athletic, lest we forget, and don’t crumple that easily. So for every additional injury provoked by today’s super-scientific surfaces, there is one less cleat stuck in the mud-type orthopedic nightmare from yesteryear. Call it a wash.

Far more likely is every twisted ankle in Dubuque and every fractured humerus in Dallas ending up on the Internet. It’s a global village and a small world, after all, and I’d like to give the world a Coke and all of that. We are in each others’ business to an unimaginable degree. Even in his wildest dreams, assuming he dreamt, Josef Stalin could not have imagined that we all would be able to snoop on each other so merrily, so even-temperedly, with such disregard for individual privacy. It’s an autocrat’s world, after all.

But it’s not that, exactly, either. The perverse itch to be scared crapless is one of the great unspoken hungers, the very thing that spawned and spawns B-movies. Halloween and II and III and 4 and 5 and H20 all attest to the durability of providing fear and violence in exchange for 10 bucks, not counting the popcorn. The fright flick, along with porn, seems the only the sure-fire way to make a profit these days in the film biz. So too with governmental-amplified tempests in every teapot, nonevents like swine flu and the entire collective weapons of mass destruction fantasy that seemed more rooted in male dreams of domination than anything occurring in the desert. Fear was the coin of the realm, used to motivate and distract, and many couldn’t get enough.

The broken and dangling limbs of athletes are also part of the genre, with a critical though quickly overlooked difference: we seem to forget that the person truly had an injury, not a legerdemain provided by a combination of stuntman, animation, and mirrors. Prior to the easy access provided by the endless loop running between reality and TV and YouTube, we had only the brutal horror of the automobile wreck to provide predictably true, not Hollywood, fascination and terror. But now ich bin ein rubbernecker. To watch all we can stand, we just need to click around a bit.

The frequent viewing, though, introduces a problem that rubbernecking never had—the dulling and inuring effects of repetition. Though poor Kevin Ware is a person of flesh and blood, someone whom we all suffered with as he collapsed in pain and shock and someone whose story of recuperation we look forward to long after the NCAA championship, he and his injury likely will soon become indistinguishable from the rolling heads of Game of Thrones or the latest vampiring hijinks of teeth and blood. With the blast of recognition and gusts of real public concern beneath his wings, Ware is facing a new challenge perhaps more daunting than his road back to the hardwood. He is at risk of being pulled into that most dangerous of all places, the injurious world of celebrity.