Why We Watch Disturbing YouTube Videos

When this week began, a YouTube search of the name Shaun Livingston would've retrieved 12 videos, all of them showcasing highlights from the blossoming career of a supremely talented, 21-year-old point guard for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. By Tuesday night, the same search produced twice as many videos, and each of the new entries featured the same play: a fast-break lay-up during Monday night's game against the Charlotte Bobcats that ended with Livingston coming down awkwardly on his left leg, and his knee blowing apart under his own weight. Footage of the injury was also retrievable via several other search "tags," including the words "disgusting," "disturbing," "twisted," "hurt" and "ouch." Within 24 hours, the videos on YouTube had been viewed tens of thousands of times. (Editor's note: YouTube removed the Livingston videos from their site late Thursday.)

In the annals of televised sports injuries, the Livingston video is about as bad as it gets. Trust me. I've watched it twice. I won't pretend that I did it for professional reasons, or that the video simply started playing (twice) and I couldn't stop it in time. I watched it because I couldn't resist watching it. The whole time I thought, "This is sick. This is deplorable. This is indefensible …" And then I clicked "play" again. The weird thing is, I actually have a weak stomach for this sort of thing, but there I was, sticking my finger down my own throat. And then, adding insult to injury, literally, I forwarded the link to five co-workers, implicitly telling each of them that I believed them to be just as demented as I am. One colleague e-mailed back a YouTube link containing more than 1,800 grotesque sports-injury videos—an online Madame Tussaud's of shattered limbs and ruptured ligaments. Then we all engaged in a spirited debate about where Livingston's moment of agony ranked in the history of televised sports injuries. The conclusion: up there, but not quite at the top.

So here's the question: what the hell is wrong with us?

Given the concrete evidence (many thousands of people watching the Livingston clips on YouTube) and the anecdotal evidence (my co-workers not reporting me to Human Resources), it seems safe to conclude that viewing such videos is an all-too-human temptation. The arrival of YouTube makes these clips perilously easy to find, and therefore harder to resist. By now, televised sports injuries are practically a genre unto itself, and YouTube has helped backdate the catalog. If you want to see the notorious 1985 footage of Joe Theismann being sacked by Lawrence Taylor and suffering a compound leg fracture, it's out there. So is the 1989 footage of NHL goalkeeper Clint Malarchuk, who nearly died when the blade of an opponent's skate cut through his neck and sliced open his carotid artery. As blood poured onto the ice, a fast-reacting team trainer scrambled out and pinched the artery closed with his fingers, saving Malarchuk's life—but not before some of his teammates reportedly threw up and several fans passed out from the sight.

Amazingly, Malarchuk was back at practice just four days later, and he played in a game after one week. Theismann wasn't so lucky; his injury ended his career. Livingston will be out at least nine months, and given the massive damage to his knee, it's anyone's guess whether he'll return in top form. But all of them survived, and that's part of why so many of us allow ourselves to watch what happened to them. These aren't snuff films, after all. They are documents of nasty injuries suffered in contact sports by athletes who voluntarily took the playing field. And they all got better. The stories have happy-ish endings.

Still, why do we watch? The Livingston footage is unusual because our sightline of what happened to him is completely unobstructed. After a lone defender rushes past Livingston, he's by himself, in profile, on the left side of the screen, and it's his foregrounded knee that collapses. It's right there in front of us. When such awful injuries happen in football, they tend to occur amid a stew of bodies. We don't see the whole person, just a random limb suffering some terrible fate. The Livingston situation is different. But the tidiness of the footage affords us the perverse thrill of seeing the human body bend in a way we never imagined it could. (And lo and behold, it can't.)

And that's the nub of it, really: we watch because it's a chance to witness brutality in a regulated, supervised, largely consequence-free environment. And, of course, the fact that it's on television, or on the Web, and not right in front of us, offers us still another degree of emotional separation. For many people, our love of sports is about the grace and beauty of athletes at their finest, so naturally there's an attraction to moments where the opposite is on display. We love sports bloopers, too, not just sports injuries. But there are limits. For instance, I couldn't bring myself to watch the sad, agonizing aftermath of Livingston's injury, when he lay writhing on the floor for minutes, surely terrified that his career might be over. The clip I saw ended with Livingston hitting the court in a heap, sparing me from grappling with a human being's genuine pain.

As a child of the Internet generation, Livingston must know that the document of his injury is everywhere, that almost everyone who knows him has seen it—and that there's a decent possibility it'll be the most memorable moment of his NBA career. Think about how that must feel. Hurting yourself in public is humiliating, after all, and for athletes now there's no limit to the size of their public. A horrific on-court injury can easily become your legacy, a modern reality that, say, Bob Cousy could never have imagined. Whenever one of these video clips surfaces, it's not long before some holier-than-thou sportswriter grabs the easy (and usually disingenuous) high ground, chiding sports fans for their shameless savagery. My response? Hey, I never said I wasn't ashamed.

Why We Watch Disturbing YouTube Videos | News