Typically, when injuries happen in sports, we feel no pain. Taking them as a matter of course is key to the orderly consumption of sports: Bodies optimized to a machine-like extreme rapidly shed their humanity; collective notions of success and failure outstrip the individual; and cold, strategic gamesmanship frequently squelches subjectivity. Injuries, correlated with a team’s immediate or long-term prospects, register as disappointments, not trauma.
Every once in a while, though, a shock forces us to confront injuries as something else altogether. Just minutes in the 2017-18 NBA season, Boston Celtics swingman Gordon Hayward came down awkwardly after a lob from Kyrie[*] and snapped his tibia in the most gruesome way possible. The game struck a funereal pause; players huddled in prayer, announcers struggled to speak, and there was an outpouring of emotion from the NBA community. Even the cold-hearted denizens of Twitter were shaken by the gruesome scene.
Our perception of sports is often governed by narrative, and no fan had to look very hard to unearth a tragic leitmotif here: the well-liked Hayward, whose move to Boston from Utah had been one of the biggest stories of the summer, was brutally cut down at his own coming-out party. But Hayward’s injury didn’t strike a nerve because of what it meant, but because of how it felt.
Unless you’re a truly vacant monster, there was simply no way to experience that moment and come away unshaken or unmoved. This was the opposite of the numbness that so often attends how we perceive bodies in sports. Whether responding to other people’s suffering is a biological necessity or an especially important piece of learned behavior, the footage of Hayward’s leg breaking prompts a visceral reaction. Even if you didn’t know the first thing about Gordon Hayward, the Celtics, or basketball, the footage would leave you shaken.
The bodies in sports may be alien, but they provide us great comfort.
At time same, that reaction wasn’t a simple jolt of empathy. For better or worse, sports—at least in the way we consume sporting events as fans—traffics in spectacle. And these spectacles serve in turn as a handy template for reflecting our own hopes, anxieties, fantasies, and fears back onto ourselves. The illusion of athletic invincibility gives us license to stare blankly at most injuries. But it’s also self-serving. Insofar as we project ourselves onto athletes, we need them to be impervious—so that we can also imagine ourselves that way.
In a case like Hayward’s injury, this whole mechanism backfires. If this could happen to someone whose physicality borders on superhuman, how frail and susceptible must the rest of us be? If an otherwise rote play can end Gordon Hayward’s season and cast a pall of uncertainty over the rest of his career, what awful thing could befall us if, say, we fall down the stairs or don’t visit the doctor to treat a nagging pain? The bodies in sports may be alien, but they provide us great comfort. When they fail, we’re left scrambling to make sense of our own health and well-being—which, if they paled in comparison to their healthy, accomplished pro-sports counterparts before, now seem positively, and terrifyingly, frail.
In the wake of an injury like Hayward’s, anyone seeking existential comfort in sports is forced to entertain another, still more troubling thought—that sports, like the rest of life, can deliver no reliable moral to its own master-narrative. Any casual viewer of any sport knows how readily that organized athletic competition can double as a metaphor for life’s struggle. For some, sports are proof that hard work, valor, and moral fiber pay off. Others see confirmation that dumb luck and random occurrences govern the universe. And, splitting the difference, there’s the sometimes explicit religious theme of destiny taking hold, and/or the cosmos rewarding its most loyal subjects. Our own suffering is alleviated, if not obviated, by sports. The meaning of life is supplanted by the smaller-bore dramas of winning and losing—but with winning always on the table, optimism usually proves the stronger motive force. Anything that obstructs any part of the optimistic will-to-win often gets treated as a momentary setback. In this equation, there’s always another game ahead, and losing isn’t decisive failure—it’s character-building adversity. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, failure may not exist at all—so long as you’re willing to compete, over and over and over again.
Within this narrative framework, injuries function as homily. Athletes are supposed to pick themselves up and battle back—not just because we need them to, but because it’s what we ourselves want to do when the world undercuts us. But what happens when, as with Hayward, gritting it out just isn’t an option? That’s when injury ceases to be a manageable obstacle, and becomes a negation that brings us face to face with some grim facts about our own mortality—the very finality that sports’ ingrained optimism would prefer to avoid.
On the cusp of great promise, Gordon Hayward was struck down by senseless violence.
Stepping away from the game after a rich, satisfying career equates to dying in your sleep at age ninety. On the cusp of great promise, Gordon Hayward was struck down by senseless violence. His example doesn’t just remind us that we’re all going to die one day; it also forces us to admit that it might happen to us any day now, for no good reason, at exactly the wrong time in our lives. Death could give two fucks about your plans in the same way that physics cared little for Hayward’s narrative.
When the polarity of sports reverses like this—and what was once reassuring becomes sinister and forbidding—the spectacle before us transforms from a form of wishful positive thinking to something like triage. No one wants to go out like Hayward, much less suffer through such a painful, undignified reckoning alone. The goodwill that greeted Hayward’s awful injury was in part about people looking at him, seeing themselves, and immediately clinging to those around them for reassurance that even if death came suddenly and at the worst possible time, we wouldn’t have to go through it all alone.
But if sports have the capacity to tell us harrowing things, they only do so because we want them to. Our consumption of sports, glib and fatuous as it can be, also leaves room for these thornier, less facile explorations. And we’re open to this darker side of the sports narrative because, on an unconscious level, we want to say these things to ourselves, even when we aren’t willing to do so voluntarily.
Sports, while they articulate much that’s stupid and backward about the world, are ultimately as complex as we are. When we make a daily habit of denying that complexity, it crops up in unlikely places. And maybe that’s part of the point.
[*] Correction: A previous version of this article claimed that Hayward’s injury happened on a rebound attempt. It happened, in fact, after a lob from Kyrie.