Kevin Ware’s Horrifying Injury, the Myth of the “Student-Athlete” and the Response of the Sports Media


The question we should be asking: Is Louisville going to give Kevin Ware a scholarship for the remainder of his time at Louisville?  Are they going to make sure he graduates, after his rehab is over?  Are they going to treat him like a student, as well as an injured athlete?  The answer is: most likely.  His injury has become a national story-line and is probably the hottest topic trending on Google today, potentially overshadowing Opening Day of the 2013 baseball season.  Unfortunately, most career-ending injuries to Division One athletes are not so visible.  Usually, they don’t force schools to do the right thing, and to take care of the injured athletes who’ve been contributing to the accumulation of wealth that a Final Four spot wins for the the university.  My heart goes out to Kevin Ware.

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Kevin Blackistone, a regular on ESPN’s Around the Horn (the best sports journalism show on television), was part of a panel on the commercialization of college athletics.  For an enlightening discussion on how the business of college athletics actually impacts the “student-athletes,” click here (the panel starts at the 30-minute mark: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/21947910

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Travis Waldron, contributing to thinkprogress.org, details the myth of the student-athlete and the term’s origins in the 1950’s.  Waldron quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, who has literally written the book which all Sociology of Sport classes will no doubt be including on their reading lists, The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA.  As Waldron, quotes, Branch exposes the nature of the hypocrisy inherent in the NCAA’s system.

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

“We crafted the term student-athlete,” Walter Byers himself wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a “work-related” accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was “not in the football business.”

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

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Will Leitch, writing for a great new site Sports on Earth (USA Today’s answer to Grantland), examines the role of the sports media following the horrifying injury to Louisville guard Kevin Ware:

In the immediate aftermath of Ware’s injury, pretty much every sports site on the Internet had to answer a sudden pop quiz question: Are we going to post the video?

From what I can tell, the following sites ran a GIF or video of the injury:

The Big Lead
Buzzfeed
Deadspin
Yahoo

And the following didn’t:

ESPN
SB Nation
Sports Illustrated
USA TODAY Sports

(Sports on Earth didn’t, although we’re not exactly a GIF-heavy site anyway.)

CBS initially showed replays of the injury twice, apparently, and never ran another one; according to Scott Van Pelt, ESPN quickly made the decision not to show any replays, and still haven’t. Our own Tommy Tomlinson, who was on site in Indianapolis, said the Jumbotron at Lucas Oil Stadium never once showed the play.

I absolutely respect CBS, ESPN, USA TODAY Sports and SB Nation for deciding not to replay the video or to GIF the play. (It should be noted that Sports on Earth is partly owned by USA TODAY Sports.) I personally wouldn’t have run the video or GIF’d the play, if I were in charge of any of those sites, though again: I still haven’t seen the play, so I’m just going off the collective nausea of the Internet here.

But you’re gonna have a hard time convincing me that The Big Lead and Deadspin and Buzzfeed and Yahoo and anybody else did something wrong by GIF-ing the play. (By the way, could we please come up with another verb for that while we’re at it?) You’re hearing a lot of this, that somehow those sites were exploiting the situation, or being inhuman, or selling out a young kid with a broken leg for page views. And sure, it feels wrong to post a video of something so brutal and raw — of all the reactions, I think Michael Bush’s affected me the most — on a page next to a pageview counter and a Facebook Like button.

I’m not sure it is, though, for several reasons. In a split second, Ware’s injury, and Louisville’s reaction to it, instantaneously became the story of the tournament. It’s going to dominate coverage of next week’s Final Four, and, all told, it’s probably going to be the one thing from this year’s tourney everyone remembers. It is not some anonymous snuff video, everyone gathering around the Internet to watch some poor schmuck get hit by a train. It is the central storyline of a major sporting event, was seen on national television by millions of people and probably what everyone has been talking about at your office today. It is, in the purest sense of the word, news. Not covering something — not showing it — because it is unpleasant or unwelcome in polite company is no way to last long in the news business.

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One thought on “Kevin Ware’s Horrifying Injury, the Myth of the “Student-Athlete” and the Response of the Sports Media

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