University of Louisville guard Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome right leg injury during his team's victory over Duke in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. The sophomore's leg shattered and bone protruded from his shin. His teammates and coach were devastated. Viewers were horrified.
The media coverage of Ware's injury has consisted of hackneyed story lines.
Reporters have played up the "win one for the gipper" angle. Louisville coach Rick Pitino told CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson after the game: "The bone's 6 inches out of his leg and all he's yelling is, 'Win the game, win the game." ESPN.com was one of many sites to report that Pitino exhorted his players at halftime to "win it for Kevin."
Several writers conjured up memories of other gruesome sports injuries, most notably when Lawrence Taylor snapped Joe Theismann's leg during a Monday Night Football game in 1985. In the days following the injury, there has been extensive coverage of Ware's surgery and the rehabilitation process.
Some members of the media have engaged in thought-provoking journalism, venturing beyond the feel-good, fluff pieces into the murky status of student athletes. For example, Brian Montopoli of cbsnews.com, examined whether Ware's scholarship is at risk and to what degree his medical bills will be covered by the university.
However, I have not heard one member of the media ask the fundamental question: Should Louisville have continued playing that game after Kevin Ware was injured?
It seems like a reasonable question. A bunch of kids—yes, they are still kids, 18-22 years of age—witnessed their teammate and close friend suffer a horrific injury. The effect it had on them was evident.
Several of them dropped to the floor in horror. Russ Smith was crying. Chane Behanan, Ware's best friend on the team, was inconsolable. Even Coach Pitino had to wipe away tears.
Several Louisville players appeared to vomit on the bench— Zach Schonbrun (@zschonbrun) March 31, 2013
Play halted for several minutes as Ware was carried away on a stretcher. Then his teammates resumed playing a game while their friend was taken to the hospital. Maybe, just maybe, the Louisville players and coaches should have gone to the hospital with him.
It is important for athletes, coaches, fans, team owners, university presidents and other people involved with sports to decide what role competitiveness should play in our games and in turn our society.
Is it possible to be too competitive? To what degree should we prioritize winning over things such as health and compassion? How should the age of participants, the money involved and other circumstances affect those priorities?
College coaches routinely talk about their desire to teach players values which they can apply to life after basketball. Pitino could have used this opportunity to show his kids that friendship is more important than basketball, that compassion should trump competition.
Of course, it is not that simple. This is high stakes hoops. Forbes reported last year that a team which advances to the Final Four earns $9.5 million for its conference. Many coaches receive substantial bonuses for reaching the pinnacle of college basketball and there are recruiting benefits that come with it.
But, should the stakes matter, and if so, how much? If a group of six or seven-year-old boys are an organized game of basketball and one boy suffers an injury similar to Ware's, the game is over. His close friends may go to the hospital and everybody else would go home.
The other extreme is professional sports, where athletes continue performing their jobs after devastating injuries to teammates. The obvious example is when an NFL player lies immobile on the field, facing the real possibility of paralysis, and his buddies go back to initiating vicious collisions moments later.
College athletes are not professionals and should not be held to the same standards. Maybe the Rutgers football team should not have resumed its game against West Point in 2010 after defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was rendered motionless on the field.
Where do we draw the line? At what level should athletes be expected to play on after watching a teammate and friend suffer a gruesome injury? Middle school? High School?
Does it matter that Ware's injury occurred in the Elite Eight as opposed to a relatively meaningless preseason tournament game?
It is worth considering that his teammates worked extremely hard for the opportunity to compete in the Final Four. Would it have been fair to ask them to give up when they were so close to achieving their goal so they could sit in a waiting room while their teammate underwent surgery? There was nothing they could have done for Ware at that point.
I have not found any evidence of a college or professional game being canceled due to an in-game injury. Pitino would have set a precedent by forfeiting the game, which could have led to a slippery slope.
What injuries are severe enough to warrant forfeiting a game? Coaches would have to make difficult, spur of the moment decisions, without necessarily knowing the extent of the injury and would face intense media scrutiny regardless of how they chose.
On the other hand, this was a somewhat unique circumstance. Jim Nantz, who was announcing the game for CBS, said of Ware's injury, "I don't know if in basketball I've ever seen one like that." His sentiment was echoed on social media by numerous reporters and fans.
Worst thing I've ever seen on a basketball court.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) March 31, 2013
That's about the most gruesome injury I've seen in a basketball game.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 31, 2013
You can argue that Ware took the decision out of Pitino's hands. According to nytimes.com, the sophomore called his teammates over while he was waiting for the stretcher and said, “Just win it for me, y’all.” Following Ware to the hospital would have been contrary to his wishes, and he would have been racked with guilt if his teammates passed up a shot at the Final Four for him.
However, those were the words of an emotional young man, trying to be brave in the face of agonizing pain. As the coach and father figure, Pitino could have overruled him in the interest of teaching his players a valuable lesson about friendship and compassion.
Ware's teammates also could have decided on their own to stop playing, either individually or a as team. But, by doing so without Pitino's approval they would have risked punishment, possibly even the loss of their scholarships, and likely been castigated by a large percentage of Louisville fans and the media.
It would have been a remarkable story if Pitino pulled his troops off the floor. Imagine the headline: "Louisville Cardinals Forgo A Shot At the Final Four to be With Their Fallen Teammate."
The Louisville team would have broken new ground in the sports world and been immortalized their participation in the most profound moment in the history of the NCAA tournament. Movies would be made about the 2012-13 Louisville Cardinals.
It probably would have helped Pitino's recruiting as well. Every parent wants their child to play for a coach who genuinely cares about his players. On the other hand, it would have opened the coach up to severe criticism from Louisville boosters and fans, and adherents of jock culture.
However, the aftermath of the decision is beside the point. The issue is whether going to the hospital with Ware was the right thing to do. There may not be a right or wrong answer, but it is a topic that should be discussed in great detail.