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Why Kevin Ware’s injury makes us wince, but movie kills don’t

Updated: April 1, 2013 4:32PM

Spoiler alert! This might hurt a bit.

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, walking to the bathroom in the dark and stubbing your toe hard against the wrought iron table in the hallway.

Picture getting a paper cut in the webbing between your index and middle fingers.

Envision what it feels like when you chip a tooth and the raw nerve is exposed to something cold.

You wince just thinking about it, right?

So it was for just about anyone who saw the video of Louisville guard Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury sustained during the first half of the Cardinals’ victory over Duke on Sunday.

Over the last 18 hours or so, it felt as if you couldn’t turn on a newscast or a sports highlight show without hearing the somber warning of the anchor — followed by multiple replays of the moment when Ware leaped in an attempt to block a shot, his leg snapping in grotesque fashion when he landed.

(CBS, which was carrying the game live, showed the replay twice and that was it. At halftime, Greg Gumbel said CBS wouldn’t show the injury anymore, concentrating instead on reaction shots. However, you could see the footage on local affiliates, other sports shows and, of course, online. By Monday morning, the real-time footage of the injury had more than 2 million views on YouTube.)

Some of those in attendance said you could hear a snapping sound, and Ware’s tibia was sticking out.

Some Ware’s teammates crumpled to the floor and cried. Their coach, Rick Pitino, said, “I literally almost threw up. This was very traumatic for us to overcome because all of us witnessed it right up close.”

It’s virtually impossible to watch the video without wincing or even issuing an empathetic moan. The moment when Ware’s leg snaps, you can practically feel the shooting pain.

And yet when we see violent films such as “Olympus Has Fallen” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” with busted bone after busted bone and kill after kill after kill, we don’t wince at all. In fact we’re supposed to cheer or even chuckle at the carnage — especially when it’s the bad guys going down.

Even when we see news footage of bodies piled up in the streets after a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, we’re able to distance ourselves from the horror. We shake our heads and we say, “Such a tragedy,” but we don’t wince, we don’t cringe, we don’t look away.

How can this be?

Relatable pain

Of course there’s an obvious difference between real-life footage of a sports injury and the stylized gore we see in so many films. (And on some of the finest shows on TV. Hello, “Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy.”) In the aforementioned “Olympus Has Fallen,” as Gerard Butler’s Secret Service agent systematically takes out one North Korean terrorist after another, we’re supposed to cheer and even laugh the laugh of victory when our hero guns down another henchman, or plunges his knife into the neck of a villain. It’s R-rated, semi-realistic looking Revenge Porn. But there’s no visceral punch to the gut.

Why? Because we have no sense-memory to create that connection between what we’re seeing onscreen and what we’ve experienced or witnessed in our own lives. Whether it’s the movies or TV fiction or even documentary or news footage, we can’t relate to the guy who just got shot three times, or the victim of a stabbing, or the poor soul who just got thrown off a roof.

What makes us wince? The scene where the hero gets stitched up by the obligatory hot love interest — who just happens to be skilled in the art of removing slugs from shoulders. That’s why the hero winces, too. He shrugs off the bullets and the knife gashes, but he recoils in pain when the leading lady puts a little alcohol on the wound as she tells him to stop being such a big baby.

So it was with Ware’s broken leg. Most of us haven’t sustained such a horrific injury, but we have fractured a bone in a leg or an arm, and when we see Ware’s leg snap, we’re taken back to that memory.

This is why the dental-torture scene in “Marathon Man” still resonates, whereas we shrug off all those movies in which the bad guy is tied up and is repeatedly punched in the face. Unless there’s something you’re not telling me about your past, you’ve probably never been tied up in an abandoned warehouse and forced to endure the taunts of your enemy while his henchmen take turns working you over. But you have been in the dentist’s chair. You know that drill, so to speak.

Certain types of injuries hit home and hit hard.

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