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.)