Anyone who has ever played or watched sports has experienced this feeling: When everyone’s heart drops, the game stops and we all stand still. No, I am not talking about hitting the game winning shot that leaves you breathless. I am talking about the only true moment of communal tragedy in sports: a serious injury.

Jusuf Nurkić, an NBA player for the Portland Trail Blazers, experienced an injury March 26 that made many Reddit users “feel like crying.” The injury happened on a routine basketball play when Nurkić went up for a rebound and, on his way down, landed on an opposing players foot, causing his leg to bend and snap in half just above his ankle. Nurkić is out indefinitely with compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula.

As I put my hand in front of my eyes and tried to look away from the video clip of Nurkić’s gruesome injury, another feeling began to swell over me: a feeling of shame and guilt. In reality, when I clicked on a NSFW injury video, I knew that it would be gruesome. In fact, I even let the video play over a few times to make sure that I had really seen what happened to him. I made sure to really soak in how horrifying the whole thing was. Why did I choose to watch something I knew would send shivers down my spine? Why was I trying to look away from something I chose to watch? More importantly, why were other people doing this exact same thing?

I think the best way to get at these questions is to start with a much larger question about the logic of sports fandom: Why do people watch sports? As I see it, sports fans are compelled by one driving desire: the desire for the spectacle. We lust for a window into the unimaginable and the unbelievable. In the most spectacular sports moments, our sense of self can drift away and we can become entranced by the miraculous movements of the human body. It is this fading away from the personal that allows for fan bases to turn into pseudo-religious institutions and for people to yell at their TV screens and jump for joy. Our bodies and minds become so mesmerized by sporting spectacles that we cease to have the ability to control ourselves.

But what makes a sporting spectacle different from other spectacles like movies and art exhibitions? As I see it, one common thread that ties all sports together is an emphasis on the athletic capabilities of bodies. The Olympics are a perfect example of this idea. The Olympics are a place where the strengths and weakness of every body type are put on full display — where the limits of the human body are tested in the labs we call stadiums. It seems fitting, then, that sports, a fusion of the spectacle and the body, are a place where the beautiful accomplishments of the body and the body’s grotesque failures are displayed and enjoyed by sports fans.

What I have been calling the “grotesque” refers to injuries in which the body gets crushed and cracked in ways we never thought imaginable, but it is worth considering how the “grotesque” might also be thought of as a form of violence. In both instances of violence and grotesque injuries, we find wounded bodies screaming out for help. Put simply, we see people in pain.

In modern sports fandom, we often like to pretend that our lust for violence does not pull us closer in. For example, most football fans, like myself, pretend that we watch the game for clever strategies and teamwork. Yet, it is quite obvious that football is structured around the idea of bodies violently crashing into each other. A quick genealogy of sports further shows how we have sublimated our values when we claim to hate violence but love sports like football. Some of the first Western sports were built around honoring violent acts like limb dislocation and eye-gouging.

Every time we flip on a game, like the one where Nurkić cracked his leg in half, we tell ourselves that we hope to see graceful athletic plays, cutting edge strategy, and our team win; however, deep down, we also want to see violence, mental lapses and the other team lose. The virality of injuries like Nurkić’s shows that our drive to watch sports is powered by success and failure, by bodily spectacles of both grace and violence. In short, the reason that I chose to click on the Nurkić injury video is the same reason I choose to click on a LeBron James highlight: I want to see a bodily spectacle.

Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at rrosenb@umich.edu.

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