The ecosystem of the human body does not want for complexity, nor do the myriad of idiot things we inflict upon it. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the world of sports, where athletes willingly submit their bodies, like monks to their vows, in pursuit of Larry having a nice, drunken night because a bunch of super-fit young ‘uns in matching outfits did the correct thing with the ball more often than the other boys.
Of course, when you push the ol’ haunted meat toilet that is your body, sometimes things can malfunction. In close contact, hopes and dreams and pathogens alike can be shared. And when we humans fight—which we so dearly love to do—we like to just barely almost kill each other. It’s very fun. In light of this, we’re starting a recurring series to investigate all the fleshy nightmares that sports can inflict on the body. From shitting your pants during a marathon to the science of getting kicked in the dick, we’re going all in on bodies gone wrong.
For this inaugural column, we’ll spend some time appreciating the grossness of some common sports stuff.
The gothest thing about baseball is Tommy John surgery, and I love telling people about it. The faces they make when I regale them with tales of players who have cadaver tendons woven into their arms are a pure and simple joy. The procedure was developed in 1974 by then-L.A. Dodgers team physician Dr. Frank Jobe, and is named for the pitcher who first had the then-experimental surgery. It’s formally known as ulnar bilateral ligament reconstruction, a fix for dead-arm syndrome, which is the final stop in an escalating overuse pathology that affects the shoulder. It’s caused by throwing a ball really fucking hard, over and over again.
At the time of the first surgery, Jobe put John’s chances of return at 1 in 100; John would then go on to record the majority of his career wins post-op. Today, the procedure is so ubiquitous that even a casual fan recognizes the name.
Here’s how it works: first, you need a replacement tendon. Sometimes doctors harvest a tendon from the patient themselves, likely from their forearm, hamstring, or foot. The other option is to harvest a tendon from a cadaver, which is excellent, because it means that players who have had the surgery—like Jose Canseco, John Smoltz, Yu Darvish, Matt Wieters, and an honestly almost unbelievable number of others—-could potentially have arm ghosts. Imagine, if you will, an undead Boo Radley friend, living comfortably along the gristle and bone of a pitcher’s arm, mostly aslumber but occasionally waking up, cranky and recalcitrant and unable to cooperate with the catcher. Or a helpful friend, lodged near the elbow, rooting for the home team and perfectly willing to yank her host into the air to nab that impossible flyball. I personally prefer arm poltergeists, ones who wake their owners in the night to open every cabinet in the house.
It’s all very Angels in the Outfield.
Holes are drilled in the humerus and ulna bones in the arm, then the tendon is woven into a figure-eight pattern to secure it in place. It tends to work really well and some people question why steroids—which weaken tendons and have debatable effects on performance—are banned while Tommy John surgery—which evidence shows does improve performance—is totally fine.
Although I do not know if his replacement tendon came from himself or a decedent, I liked to make Angels in the Outfield jokes whenever Carl Crawford was playing.
Of the many sports-related injuries that are wont to happen in the bar and bedroom alike, human bite wounds are some of the gnarliest. Your mouth is a wet-hot, garbage-packed portal to hell, capable of imparting as many as 100 million organisms from up to 190 different species in a single milliliter of spit. Don’t freak out though; microbes get a bad rap, as we are still reeling from the GERMS ARE BAD ethos of the 20th century, but your body relies on its tiny friends for many key functions—from digestion to immunity—so you can relax about your sewer mouth.
You should not, however, relax about human bite wounds that break the skin. Many of your oral compatriots are anarobes, which means they don’t need oxygen to survive, and thus love the welcoming abode that tartar provides them. Anarobes will also thrive when embedded in the flesh of your gentle body, quiet and dark and safe from harm. About 10 to 15 percent of human bite wounds get infected, but this number is higher for bites to the hand.
Human bites fall into two categories: occlusive bites (when the bite force pressure is enough to break the skin) and clenched-fist bites. And since I have a better anecdote to go with the latter type, that’s the one we’re going with today.
When you make a fist and punch someone in the mouth, you run the risk of cutting your knuckles on their teeth. Even small wounds sustained this way should be given immediate attention, and I’m not fucking around. These cuts are usually only around 3 to 8 millimeters, but you still need to clean them as soon as possible. When your drunk ass nicks your knuckles on Jerry’s snaggletooth, you’re getting a dose of millions of organisms to an area particularly well-suited to spreading them around: When you flex and move your hand, the tendons can act like bacterial highways, drawing your bar-fight inoculum deeper into the complicated machinery of your hand.
These infections can move quickly and you should always keep an eye on the wound for signs of infection, like redness, swelling, pus, and other types of generalized Cronenbergian nightmare fuel.
To wit, a cautionary tale: A young chap of 19 punched his brother in the face and showed up at the hospital the next day with an entire human tooth in his hand. It was written up in BMJ Case Reports, but you can see pictures over at the Daily Mail.
Since there is nothing sexier—and few things more enticing to American audiences—than consensual almost-murder, many fights end with a special hug that makes the sleepy: the rear naked choke, or RNC. That its parent hold is the “back mount” only escalates the sensuality inherent in this loving death hug.
It looks pretty brutal—it’s usually accompanied by frantic, red-faced squirming—but this particular blood choke is actually pretty peaceful, so long as you release the hold as soon as your partner is out. Obviously, since we are dealing with cutting off blood to the brain, should you decline to release the choke in a very timely fashion, there’s a risk of brain damage and death. But, so long as you get that blood flowing again as soon as possible, research shows that it’s safe. Moreover, according to judoinfo.com, “No fatalities as a result of shime-waza [RNC] have been reported in the sport of judo since its inception in 1882.”
The RNC isn’t an asphyxiation-based choke; windpipe compression is dangerous to the trachea and besides, airflow obstruction is not a swift way to put someone down. Instead, the RNC interrupts the flow of blood between the brain and the heart, leading swiftly to the warm, natal waters of pure nothingness in mere seconds.
When a person’s neck is cradled in the familiar forearm embrace of an RNC, the choker applies pressure and blood is immediately hindered from leaving the head. This stoppage gives the chokee a pinked and flushed feeling thanks to a growing congestion of blood. Increasing the pressure more flattens the carotid arteries, which are the main target of the choke and the main source of blood to the brain. A few seconds of this and things fade to black, and quickly. Coming out of a blood choke feels a bit like waking up from the dead, or waking up from being blackout drunk. It takes a few moments to figure out who you are, what is happening, and how you got there. All in all, it’s a little kiss on the mouth from the abyss and, when performed correctly, causes no lasting damage. Compared to getting your bell rung, I gotta say, it’s a pretty charming way to end a fight.
Do you have questions about sports-related bodily horror? Want the inside scoop on how a particularly gruesome femur break went down or the intimate details of sharing skin fungi? Email our columnist.
Leigh Cowart is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast and Hazlitt, among others. Follow her on Twitter @voraciousbrain. Careful, she bites.