Alison Berkely Margo: The Princess’s Palate
January 31, 2013
My husband and I have been having an ongoing argument for the past two days about Caleb Moore’s snowmobiling accident in this year’s X Games.
In case you don’t already know, Moore was attempting a backflip when he came up short, and his 450-pound snowmobile landed on top of him. As of press time, he was still in critical condition with major head and chest trauma, and his grandfather told The Denver Post that his prognosis was pretty dire.
Ryan’s take is sort of a “boys will be boys” perspective.
“Why is everyone blaming ESPN? How is it their fault?” he bellowed, his volume rising as it often does when his mouth is open and words are coming out of it.
“Why are you yelling?” I said, my computer on my lap as I stalked people I no longer speak to on Facebook. “You don’t think prime-time television, sponsor dollars and prize money is going to encourage someone to go too far?”
He flashed me one of those don’t-you-dare-disagree-with-the-king looks, pursing his lips together in frustration before he spoke.
“No, I don’t. We did that kind of stuff as kids all the time. I’m lucky I never got killed.”
I didn’t say, “I wouldn’t call driving your Chrysler E-Class nose-first into a frozen lake the same thing as doing backflips on a snowmobile.” Instead I said, “I’m not having this argument with you. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
Here’s the thing. Over the course of my career, I’ve known a lot of athletes who have risked their lives and some who have died.
Whenever an athlete dies doing something that is inherently risky and sometimes just plain stupid, they are regarded as a martyr. They are revered for “dying doing what they loved.” They are forever immortalized and cherished by the people who are left behind and are forced to make these kinds rationalizations in order to survive their grief.
While I get that these athletes often are beloved because of the very qualities that make them the best at what they do in the first place, I don’t see it that way. I see it as selfish, and it seriously pisses me off.
I have a friend who is a professional snowboarder who is constantly pushing the limits of riding big mountains. He’s been doing this now for well over a decade, taking what he calls “calculated risks” and reiterating to me and anyone who asks that he is not afraid to walk away when things don’t feel right. He is deeply respected and highly regarded by everyone who works with him for his meticulousness in risk assessment and backcountry expertise.
When his daughter was born almost eight years ago, I asked him, “So now that you’ve had a baby, are you going to stop doing this stuff?”
A typically mellow dude, he was as incensed as he was perplexed by this question.
“Why would I stop now? I’m the strongest I’ve ever been,” he said, dismissing me as much with his words as with his tone.
Now that he has two kids, I asked his wife how she copes with it.
“I really don’t know much about what he’s doing until it’s already over,” she said, hidden behind a frozen smile.
I remember that when I asked her about it before they were even married, she said, “He told me if I express my fears or my doubts, it could jeopardize his safety, just planting that seed in his head. So I don’t say anything.”
Other athletes’ wives I’ve talked to over the years say they just learn to accept it.
“It’s like being married to a pilot or a firefighter,” one said. “It’s who he is.”
In the trailer for an upcoming documentary on Shane McConkey, who died ski BASE jumping in Italy in 2009, Scot Schmidt said, “People like Shane would say they’re not afraid of death. They would say they’re afraid of not living life fully.”
In Shane’s own words, “It’s not that I like to scare myself. It’s just a byproduct of what we do.”
In the three-minute trailer, there are photos of his wedding, of his baby girl, of his father crying and his friends tearing up.
Everyone loved Shane, but I’m sorry: Isn’t it time to think about hanging up your BASE-jumping parachute when it’s not just your life at stake but the people who love you and will suffer heartbreaking grief when you’re gone?
In the documentary, Shane’s wife is as stoic as she is beautiful when she says, “I would never stop him from doing what he loved.”
We’ve lost members of our own community to skiing and snowboarding accidents and avalanches, some of them the result of risk taking or poor judgment, and some of them were just accidents.
The same could be said of Moore. This was a trick he’d landed dozens of times, so what went wrong? Was it some random, arbitrary, butterfly-flapped-its-wings event that can cause any number of fatal accidents? You always hear people defend their dangerous pursuits with the line, “It’s no less dangerous than driving on the freeway in your car,” but I’m not so sure.
What I see are people who, despite their expertise, are increasing their odds every time they take a “calculated risk,” and sooner or later, as we have witnessed countless times, it catches up with you.
I also find it disturbing that ESPN has remained silent in terms of covering Moore’s story other than to release a statement that essentially denies responsibility. I guess an accident of this magnitude wasn’t supposed to be part of the show.
While I do think it’s a little, er, extreme to hold ESPN accountable, I also think there’s a point when the whole concept of “extreme” becomes something else entirely, like insane.