How CBS Made Us More Human for Nine Minutes

Gruesome is too slight a word to describe Kevin Ware’s leg crumpling beneath his own weight in the Louisville-Duke Elite Eight game yesterday, but sometimes language falls short of the reality it aims to pin down.

If you experienced this moment in real time as I did, then maybe, like me, you missed the initial horror of the break.  The first tell to the severity of the situation was the shocked look on Tyler Thornton’s face, the Duke player who shot and made the three pointer Ware was attempting to block.  It was an odd reaction to a made basket.  The next camera shot was of three Louisville players on the ground, one whose head was burrowed against the court.

First thought: a small bomb went off.  Second thought: earthquake.

These speculations were pushed aside by the sight of Ware on his back in front of the Louisville bench.  Left leg straight.  Right leg bent at an impossible right angle.

In the age of instant — and I mean instant — replay, CBS twice showed the slow-motion snap of Kevin Ware’s leg.  With each replay I wailed.  Yes, wailed.  Loudly.

This was unchartered territory.  A new frontier of emotion I don’t recall experiencing while watching a sporting event.  Though some people have compared this to Joe Theismann breaking his leg on Monday Night Football in 1985, I’m too young to have cogently experienced that event.

What mesmerized me most about the situation wasn’t the replay or even Ware writhing on the ground, it was that CBS didn’t cut to commercials.

The NCAA’s Final Four is one of the most corporate events of the television year.  March Madness brought $183 million of ad revenue into the CBS coffers in 2012.  Saying there’s a lot at stake here for CBS to get this event right for their sponsors is an understatement.

In our world of corporate sanitization, all signs would have pointed to a commercial break during the delay.  Flash ’em a commercial of a young couple swooning over a dishwasher.  Maybe a middle-aged mother figure high-fiving Mr. Clean in the kitchen.

But no, CBS let us experience the raw emotion of the event alongside the young college athletes.  It was riveting television.  We were off script for nine minutes.  There it is right there.  That’s the most evocative part of the nationally televised compound fracture, we were off script.  Television is a contrived universe by definition.  Network sitcoms typically contain banal plots and driveling dialogue.  So-called ‘reality television’ is guilty of some of the most fabricated moments we experience in media.

Reality and television ne’er collide.

Yesterday, for nine minutes, however, they did collide.  I was moved near tears as both Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski — two of the classiest men in modern sports — floundered to lead their team of young men through the calamity.  Players hugged.  Pitino cried.  Athletes of this caliber are our culture’s definition of ultimate manhood.  And CBS showed these men navigating a range of emotion men aren’t generally allowed in America.  Not in public anyway.  It all felt so raw.  Uncensored.  Shocking.

By all this, I mean it felt human.  There was a humanity to that nine minute delay that I seldom experience through the Time Warner lens of my television.  And what made it feel even more human was that millions of other Americans, mostly men I imagine, were experiencing this moment at the same time.

How often can we be so collectively human during a corporate-sponsored event?

Thank you, CBS.  First, for not exploiting the gruesome injury for cheap shock value with continuous replays and Kevin Ware close-ups.  And secondly, for letting us exist in the same emotional, human space for nine minutes.  As a writer, you’ve taught me a challenging lesson: let your audience exist in the white hot center of chaotic human emotion.  It’s the only way to understand who we are as a species.

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