What is the public’s responsibility with regard to extreme sports?

The other night, I watched The Crash Reel, a documentary about the traumatic brain injury snowboarder Kevin Pearce received while practicing for the Olympics on a halfpipe with 22 foot walls.  It’s an excellent documentary, which tracks Pearce from his carefree, careless youth; to his injury; to his challenging recovery (when he still wanted to snowboard); and, finally, to his mature acceptance that his days as a snowboarder are older — a decision that delights his family, including his brother David, a young man with Downs who wears his heart on his sleeve.

The most difficult part of the movie to watch isn’t Pearce’s own crash.  It’s the “crash reel” showing crashes suffered by people in extreme sports such as snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and dirt biking.  Watching the bodies get tumbled about by momentum and gravity is stomach churning.  Intermixed with these images are interviews with Kevin’s friends who speak about broken bones (one 23 year old had more than 20), multiple concussions, serious soft tissue injuries, etc.  All of them say that it comes with the territory, but that the thrill of their sport keeps them coming back.  One of the ones to say this was Sarah Burke, who died last year of a traumatic brain injury.

The documentary makes the point that all of these extreme sports have gotten more dangerous in the past few years.  When snowboarding on halfpipes began, the walls were 6-8 feet tall.  Now they’re 22, which means that someone (Kevin Pearce, for example), can fall from as high as 40 feet.  The athletes interviewed say that these daring escapades are what the public wants, and that the sponsors pay big time for giving the public what it wants.  Before his accident, when he was only 17, Kevin Pearce was earning hundreds of thousands in endorsements.

Since this is an HBO documentary, the film subtly implies that corporatism is at fault — big corporations are paying blood money to keep their products in the public eye.  It’s certainly true that the corporations fund what are manifestly dangerous activities.  But these young people engage in them voluntarily (and the documentary makes clear the enthusiasm with which these adrenalin junkies keep pursuing bigger highs), and the American public tunes in reliably.

I’m a libertarian, so I think that people who are of the age of consent should be allowed to engage in stupid activities.  And I believe that corporations should be able to sponsor people to be stupid.  That’s the marketplace, after all.  Likewise, we should be able to watch this stuff.  For these reasons, I oppose legislation banning these sports.  I’m also opposed to legislation putting the squeeze on football.

To me, this is not a question of marketplace or legislative issues.  It’s about morality.  In centuries past, people got their jollies watching gladiators, watching Christians and other malfeasors being fed to lions, watching cock fighting and bear baiting, assembling for public executions (hanging, evisceration, beheadings, etc.), and generally being spectators to activities we now consider repugnant and beyond the moral pale.  It seems to me, though, that watching young people kill and disable themselves on motor bikes, snowboards, and skis is very closely analogous to watching gladiators duke it out in the Colosseum.  Whether the entertainment is based upon two people fighting each other to the death, or athletes engaging in death-defying sports, our thrill comes from watching the entertainers defy death — and we get a horrible, but bizarrely compelling, frisson of excitement when death wins.

If the public tuned out, these sports would go away, without legislation and without corporate blame.  Do we have a moral obligation to tune out?  And if we do, how do we go about educating the public as to this obligation.  Let the extreme sports enthusiasts test themselves, but we don’t have to encourage them by watching.

(Incidentally, I have a theory about extreme sports:  in the old days, life was thrilling enough for young men, whether the thrills came from warfare, hunting and farming for food, or just engaging in the ordinary sports that increasing numbers of schools are abandoning.  Nowadays, our young people are cushioned from all risk.  That works for someone like me, who needs very little stimulation to be happy, but for other people, especially health, testosterone-rich young men, life is a bland nothing without some risk.  Because our society has shut risk down, they go out and seek it.  I’d rather they did something constructive, like enlist in the military and defend our nation, but that’s their choice, not mine.)

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  • jj

    I never tuned in to extreme sports, so have no imperative, moral or otherwise, to tune out therefrom.  But I am a believer in the idea that, having arrived at the age of consent, you’re responsible for yourself.  If you choose to do it then that’s a choice – one of many you’ll make in life – the consequences of which are on you.  In a karmic sense, choosing to engage is to open a door: if the grim reaper comes through it, well, on that day in that time and place it was a bad choice.  But it was still a choice, and you freely made it.  In a John Donne sense I’ll be saddened, should I hear about it at all, but will feel no responsibility.
    People measure themselves against each other, every day and all the time.  If you find something you can do well, not well merely in relationship to the ruck of humanity, but well in relationship to other people who also do it well, then it’s natural to pursue that.  A mostly healthy, I think, instinct.  Or maybe it’s a drive – term it what you will.  Perhaps it’s a descendant of natural selection, and while we’re no longer in a time when those who could run fastest got the most to eat, there are still rewards for doing something better than most people can.  (Even if what they’re doing is fundamentally dopey.) 
    I don’t watch – never have.  I don’t care, this kind of stuff doesn’t interest me.  But I wouldn’t legislate against it, either.   

  • Libby

    <em>”If the public tuned out, these sports would go away, without legislation and without corporate blame.”</em>
    I’m not so certain that would be the case. It would certainly reduce the number of people engaging in these sports, but it wouldn’t eliminate them. I’ve been a reader of Outside magazine off and on for years, and they like to profile people who engage in extreme outdoor activities where there is no audience or sponsorship – scaling the tallest peaks, base jumping, heli-skiing, surfing giant waves in exotic faraway locals, etc. The worst part is when one of these daredevils dies and leaves a family behind.The obits invariably quote a loved one saying “He died doing what he loved.”
    Some people are just wired to push the envelope in their chosen sport, and I doubt this could ever be stopped even with the strictest of legislation.

  • barbtheevilgenius

    Do the people who climb Mount Everest get that much out of a successful climb besides being able to say that the accomplished it? They have to hike right past the dead bodies of those who didn’t make it, yet they still continue the attempt.
    Used to know someone who had permanently ruined his eyesight because of moto-cross racing (all the jars to the brain from going up and down the hills.) Despite the fact that he didn’t end up with a big paycheck from corporate sponsors, I imagine he would have done the same thing again.
    There was brief talking about more body protection for major league pitchers recently after one pitcher took a ball to the head that was hit directly back at him. Yet none of the pitchers claimed to want the extra impediment to their skill that something like a hard helmet would provide. One pitcher stated that baseball players were doing what they loved, and taking the chance of life-threatening injury was part of that, albeit perhaps less of a risk than those in extreme sports.
    People will keep taking risks, with a payday or without, I think. I imagine many of the people who watch extreme sports wish they could do things like that.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    What about the Left’s responsibility not to torture kids and train them into sex slaves?

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Extreme sports, or just sports in general, are a dumping pit for what ancient civilizations called “berserkers”, “holy warriors”, “fanatic killers”, and a whole bunch of other names for certain people the tribe found useful but not particularly comfortable being around.
    Originally, the tribe would always have these youthful, reckless, stupid warriors they had to deal with. Instead of fighting it out to see who is right, elder vs youth or youth vs youth), they just sent the youths out into the wilderness to “learn stuff”. If they survived, they usually came back enlightened, experienced, and calmer. Ready to devote their talents, abilities, and experience to the survival of the village/tribe/clan.
    Some of the admiration society has for sports “stars” is due to this. Same goes for warriors or soldiers.
    Look up “squirrel suit” and the video of that guy in the air on a mountain, if you can’t get around the concept of sports=die hards.

  • http://bkivey.wordpress.com/ bkivey

    What is the public’s responsibility with regard to extreme sports?
    As you pointed out, young people, especially young men, are going to be drawn to risky activity. It’s how we’re wired. In my early 20’s I raced bicycles. I suffered a number of broken bones, and to date have seven concussions. four of which were Grade III. Brain damage is cumulative, and I don’t ride bikes anymore.
    Whether or not people pay to see spectacular sports is almost irrelevant to the desire of young people to perform them. There will always be a contingent who perform for money, but most young people would do it anyway. I would say that our attention is better served on the meddlers, and not on the performers.