For 45 seconds after Louisville's Kevin Ware suffered a compound fracture, his tibia poking out from his shin, CBS kept its cameras off him. That 45 seconds was enough time for the production room to view the replays, realize how graphic they were, decide whether to show the play again, and decide how many times, and from what angle. The fact that you've seen any slow-motion shots of Ware's injury is a result of a calculated decision by CBS.
The network settled on showing it twice. Once, from the far end of the court, and then from the same angle as the original broadcast. That was it. Until Ware was taken off the court, CBS stuck with (disturbing enough) reaction shots of teammates, fans, and coaches, and head-up shots of Ware receiving medical attention.
"We did not zoom in on the injury when he was taken off,'' [CBS Sports head Sean] McManus said. "We did not try to highlight it. I think we did the right thing.''
At halftime, Greg Gumbel announced that CBS wouldn't show the injury again. By then it was already all over the internet, with the attendant handwringing that CBS surely went through behind the scenes. The decision on how to handle gruesome injuries in a broadcast is a tricky matter of negotiating that Goldilocks zone between being exploitative and being uninformative. While there are no guidelines, a rough consensus seems to have emerged.
Update: Fred Gaudelli, lead producer for NBC's Sunday Night Football, shared his experiences with airing catastrophic injuries:
"You have to use great judgment about what your audience can stomach and what they must see. Actually, maybe more importantly, what they must not see. We used to run into this in horse racing. Whenever a horse was injured and had to be euthanized on the track, we tried to show where the injury happened. We showed that one time and then we'd shoot the scene wide enough so no details could be seen. I'm sure auto racing has the same protocol if a driver is injured. It's all part of the production plan and camera meetings: What do and don't we do if a catastrophic injury takes place."
The granddaddy of all televised injuries, Joe Theismann's compound fracture during a 1985 Monday Night Football broadcast, wasn't noticeable in real-time. Only from Lawrence Taylor's panicked reaction did the viewers (and the broadcasters) realize something had gone horribly wrong. But the first instinct for ABC producers was to find the single best angle to show what happened.
Just about 45 seconds after the play, the same length of time it took CBS to air replays of Kevin Ware's injury, Frank Gifford eagerly invited viewers to "take a look at it with our reverse-angle camera," as the "Reverse Angle" graphic popped up on screen.
(As with all these videos, the choice of whether to click play is yours. But the fact that they're all on Youtube, along with the actual deaths of Duk Koo Kim, Gilles Villeneuve, and countless other athletes, proves that the controversies over ever showing sensitive footage tend to be fleeting.)
ABC quickly went to a commercial. When it came back, producers aired the replay again, with Gifford warning viewers as it began to roll, "If your stomach is weak ... just don't watch." And that was it: two replays and out, though in the ensuing decades Theismann's injury would become the single most replayed sports injury of all time.
Nine years later, Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum's total dislocation tested ABC again. And once again (this would be a running pattern), the broadcasters were caught off-guard, just like viewers at home. "Oh, my lord," Dan Dierdorf intoned just after McCallum's knee exploded in slow motion. "You don't want to look at it."
A second replay immediately followed. Dierdorf, again with horrible timing, waited for the most graphic part of the video to air before telling viewers, "Don't look at this if you don't want to see it." Again, the second replay was the last.
In 1999, Devil Rays pitcher Tony Saunders broke his arm while throwing a pitch. The original broadcast isn't available on YouTube, but I have very strong memories of SportsCenter and This Week In Baseball showing it ad nauseam, often paired with the near-identical footage of Tom Browning and Dave Dravecky. Injury porn as historical context.
In 2005, Alabama WR Tyrone Prothro suffered a compound fracture against Florida. If not for his high socks shielding the actual bone protruding from his leg, it would have been every bit as gruesome as Ware's injury—and CBS handled it largely the same way.
The broadcasters were again unaware of what they were about to see, leaving them in the unenviable position of simultaneously processing and explaining Prothro's injury. The result was Verne Lundquist offering monosyllabic noises of sympathy, then a strained silence.
Again, two replays, then an extended commercial break. (Interestingly, the Birmingham News would receive a flood of angry letters to the editor for its decision to run a semi-graphic photo of Prothro's injury in its paper the next day.)
In 2006, Villanova's Allan Ray was inadvertently poked in the eye during the Big East Tournament semifinal. It was possibly more upsetting than a broken bone, given the natural human revulsion toward soft-tissue injuries, especially eyeballs. But ESPN, after a commercial break (time enough to realize exactly what the replays showed), re-aired Ray's injury twice in quick succession, in close-up, without the broadcasters warning viewers what they were about to see.
In 2008, Houston receiver Patrick Edwards ran full-speed into a cart holding band equipment behind the end zone, breaking his leg. "Watch this, watch this!" Lou Holtz exhorted, as the very first replay aired, but again, before the severity of the injury was apparent.
ESPN aired that replay three times, then again later in the game—and multiple times on SportsCenter in the coming days. The true freak nature of the accident, perhaps, made it less about Edwards's leg and more about the "issue" of Marshall's band unsafely storing its equipment on the field. (The newsworthy circumstances of the injury do affect the replayability, as with the pitchers' spontaneous broken arms.)
Last October, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore shredded his knee. Unlike many others in this survey, the injury was immediately apparent in real time—Lattimore came up holding his dangling lower leg. A replay confirmed the seriousness, then ESPN cut to a commercial, somewhat awkwardly, for the university.
Upon returning to the broadcast, ESPN aired the replay that magic second time, then announced that it would decline to show it again. On SportsCenter that night, the play was shown at full-speed, followed by a close-up of the prone Lattimore that didn't show his leg. No more slow-motion replays for months, at least not until the time came to predict how Lattimore's recovery would affect his NFL draft stock.
CBS's treatment of Kevin Ware's injury fits in neatly with networks' historical patterns. Two replays, without a warning for viewers. The replays were vital—almost no one watches every second of a sporting event intently. People were raiding the fridge, or playing on their phones, and Ware crumpled away from the ball, so only the hushed tones of Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg alerted viewers that something noteworthy and disturbing had gone down. It's human nature to want to see what had happened, and CBS's job as the broadcaster to show it. Two replays, neither in extreme close-up, are sufficient for that.
CBS handled things on the fly about as delicately as anyone could have managed. Where it and other networks could stand to improve their crisis management is in the presentation of those replays. There are thousands of viewers who had no urge to see a human leg snap, and who now regret having watched it. There is a compromise that would give unwilling viewers a chance to turn away: When there's an obviously gruesome injury, cut to a brief commercial. Let the broadcasters view it first, so that before any replay is aired, they can warn viewers of the graphic nature and explain to those at home, still in the dark, exactly what it is they're going to see. When offering something as discomfiting as the Kevin Ware replay, viewers deserve as much of a choice as possible.