Athletes will once again put their lives and bodies on the line this week at the X Games—but is that really something for which we should be cheering?
Todd Potter doesn't take it personally if you want to see him crash. In fact, he empathizes. "I mean, when I watch football, I want to see someone get laid out," he says. "You know, the plays where a guy jumps, and the [tackler] takes out his legs and flips him."
"That's what people are thinking when they watch us," says Potter, a 28-year-old motocross freestyle rider who will be competing this week in the X Games in Los Angeles . "They're hoping [to see] crashes. They don't want anyone to get hurt, but it'd be cool to see a wreck."
Potter is a member of the Metal Mulisha motocross team, whose website, eerily, still carries a bio in tribute to late team member Jeremy Lusk, who died in 2009 after suffering a brain injury at a competition in Costa Rica. Lusk under-rotated on a backflip and was thrown from his bike; his full-face helmet sheared in two when it hit the ground.
August 5, 2013
Potter considers himself lucky. A broken femur is the worst injury he has suffered in his decade as a pro. "It's not a secret that this sport is dangerous," he says. "But I think the reward overcomes the risk."
He has won 12 X Games medals, four of them in the category of Best Trick—a discipline he won't contest in L.A. this week. Last March, ESPN announced it was dropping the Moto X Best Trick and the Snowmobile Best Trick events from its Summer and Winter X programs, respectively. That news came six weeks after the death of Caleb Moore, a 25-year-old Texan whose 450-pound snowmobile landed on him while he attempted a flip at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo.
Even without those Best Trick competitions, frightening and even catastrophic wipeouts at the X Games remain inevitable. (Moore's fatal wreck occurred in a freestyle competition.) Indeed, many of the events—at the X Games in particular and in the extreme sports world in general—seem designed to ensure a modicum of carnage. That's what people are tuning in to see.
The X Games come two weeks after the national release of the HBO documentary The Crash Reel, a chronicle of the journey of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, a favorite to make the 2012 Winter Olympic team before he suffered a traumatic brain injury while training in a halfpipe in Park City, Utah. While telling the story of Pearce's painstaking, remarkable recovery, director Lucy Walker takes a hard look at the culture of—and the danger inherent in—extreme sports.
There is footage of freestyle skier Sarah Burke, cheerfully cataloging body parts she has broken: "Hands, nose, ribs, back, shoulders, arms...." She died Jan. 19, 2012—while the film was in production—nine days after crashing on a practice run in the same halfpipe that nearly took Pearce's life.
The Crash Reel also features BMX rider Stephen Murray's 2007 wipeout. "I didn't even know what a quadriplegic was until I became one," he says in the movie. "But that's what the crowd wants to see. They want to see people go out there and crash."
Mainstream sports contain risk, of course. It's dangerous to return a kickoff in the NFL, dangerous to face a 95-mph fastball. But many events seen at the X Games seem custom-made to yield crashes, blunt trauma, athletes being carted off on stretchers.
What about that, ESPN? While the network chose not to make any of its executives available for interviews with SI, it did release a statement which read, in part, "Action sports and the various disciplines have come to exist in their current forms through years of progression and the athletes that drive that progression."
We didn't invent this stuff, in other words, we just put it on the air. The very existence of the X Games is a major force motivating athletes and that "progression." As Potter puts it, the X Games are "definitely the highlight of everybody's calendar. The X Games make people who they are in the sport."
"At X Games," the ESPN statement goes on, "the safety and well-being of the athletes is a top priority. We've worked closely with athletes, risk management specialists, sport organizers and event managers to provide the safest possible conditions, while further measures are constantly being evaluated."
Of course, if the well-being of athletes were its top priority, ESPN would cancel the X Games. To its credit, the network has discontinued those Best Trick events. That responsible measure may hurt ratings, and it has been criticized. Without that prize, asks former motocross rider Travis Pastrana—whose double backflip to win Best Trick electrified the 2006 Summer X Games—what amazing stunts will now go unperformed, lost to history? No one is forcing the athletes to compete. Pastrana says in an email. "We choose ... to live life with more excitement and passion than those who give up their dreams due to fear."
On Forbes.com, sports business reporter Chris Smith lamented, "It's too bad that the network's reaction to tragedy will only serve to hurt the very sports it has long claimed to exalt."
Here's another way to look at it: If people are being paralyzed, maimed and killed in a sport, maybe its failure to grow isn't such a bad thing.
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