There’s been a lot of discussion on the radio the last couple of days about whether NBC should or shouldn’t show the video of Eight Belles breaking down after crossing the finish line (and being euthanized right on the track) at the Kentucky Derby. It’s almost a quaint discussion in this age of YouTube, which probably had the footage up before the filly’s body was moved off of the track.
I hadn’t watched the race, but assumed the replay would show the incident in its entirety when I got around to watching SportsCenter that night. I was a little surprised but not disappointed when ESPN didn’t show it. In fact, I was a little relieved. Thinking it was coming up had me steeling myself kind of (but not as intensely) in the same way I had prepped myself for the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan the first time I watched that movie. I knew it was an important news story, but I don’t typically get a lot of entertainment value out of seeing animals suffer.
The discussions the next day reminded me of 1978 when I was in Journalism School at the University of Missouri. It was right after Karl Wallenda had fallen to his death during a high wire stunt in San Juan. The fall had been taped and the networks showed him falling but cut away before impact. A group of my fellow J-schoolers and I were sitting at the Old Heidelberg, arguing over whether or not they should have stayed with the image all the way down (I was on the side of cutting away). Some argued that it was “news” and therefore legitimate to be shown, no matter how grim. Others of us said the point was made and the story was told without the final moment and that to show the ending was gratuitous and sensational. Yet another person suggested that the whole reason a news camera was there in the first place was because of the chance that he might fall. Nothing was resolved then (do college arguments ever resolve anything?) but I think I could feel myself already withdrawing from what I thought was going to be my profession.
It’s not as though I, and my generation of television viewers, hadn’t already been sensationalized with a number of startling scenes. Already I’m sure we’d seen Evel Knievel break himself a couple of times on Wide World of Sports, and I also remember living in Indianapolis in 1973, during what was perhaps the grimmest year in the history of the Indy 500. That May we saw Art Pollard crash during practice or time trials, his car flipping and sliding upside down along the back straightaway, killing him. The start of the actual race that year saw another crash in the front rows, with Salt Walther’s car driving up over the wheel of another racer and flipping into the air, losing it’s nose cone and it, too, landing upside down near the infield with Walther’s legs and feet sticking out of the remaining shell of the car (Walther would live, but endured a long and painful rehabilitation). Even more dramatically than that, later in the race, driver Swede Savage crashed off the outside wall then the inside wall and his car literally disintegrated around him leaving him sitting in the middle of the track, beating at the invisible alcohol flames with his arms and hands while rescue workers raced to his side, with one would-be rescuer being hit and run over by an emergency vehicle driving the wrong way out of Pit Row. I remember seeing that man’s body laying crumpled in the infield as well. (Savage would ultimately die nearly a month later from complications arising from his injuries). All of these images were brought into our homes, over and over, via the magic box.
Still later in my life I would be watching the night Joe Theisman’s leg was snapped on live television, and I’ve seen things done to Moises Alou’s and Robin Ventura’s legs that legs aren’t supposed to do. I wasn’t watching these events in the hopes of seeing these things, but there they were and I couldn’t look away.
I suppose there is a percentage (likely a small one) of auto-racing fans that go to races hoping to see a crash, just as there are those who go to (or watch) hockey games hoping to see a fight (or a player nearly be decapitated by a skate such has happened earlier this year). Similarly, I know that “gawker slow-downs” around a traffic accident scene don’t have much to do with drivers suddenly becoming very attentive and careful with their driving and there are probably cave paintings somewhere of slow-running hunters being trampled by mammoths, too.
There’s just a vicariousness, and sometimes empathy, about us that draws us to the unusual and even painful. Sometimes it can ultimately be helpful. The ’73 Indy crashes led to dramatic safety changes in the engineering and fuel capacity of the cars and there’s talk that last weekend’s events at Churchill Downs will spur greater strides in horse safety ranging from breeding to more use of synthetic track surfaces that are easier on the horses’ legs. The one thing that wont change is that we’ll still like to look.