Baffoe: Wheldon’s Death A Tragedy That Is Not A Tragedy

By Tim Baffoe-

(CBS) I’m going to get all English teacher on you for a minute here.

“Tragedy” is a word derived from Ancient Greece that became an art form in which the protagonist (sort of the main character, for those who slept through high school) meets his or her demise based on his or her own character flaw—a “tragic flaw,” if you will. In literary tragedies the character’s death is very much that person’s own fault and probably could be avoided but is not.

In that sense the audience feels bad for the character, but also wishes to show the character that it all could have been prevented. Read your Shakespeare.

As English speakers tend to do, the word tragedy has been corrupted and reshaped and forced through the round hole of what suits the convenience of language. It is now often used (erroneously) as an umbrella to describe anything unfortunate usually resulting in death—a skiing accident, a heart attack, a house fire. Such things are not tragedies. Unfortunate, horrible, gut-wrenching, yes, but not tragic in the original sense of the word.

IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, who died in a fiery crash yesterday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was not a victim of tragedy in the latter sense either. He, like his racing colleagues, engage in a “sport” (I still am hesitant to categorize racing as such, but another argument for another time) in which they put themselves in harm’s way immediately and consistently. The spectre of death looms at every car race, even if the death of a driver is quite rare.

Wheldon is the fourth IRL driver to die on a track since 1996. Twelve NASCAR drivers have died at work since 1989, five CART and four Formula One drivers since 1982, four NHRA drivers since 2004, and two ARCA drivers since 2001. Not exactly an epidemic, but not exactly that which completely catches us by surprise when it happens. I mean, officials even have plans ready for when such a death occurs, as do the other racers. What does that say?

Death is linked to auto racing, just as we are finding now that brain injuries, many fatal, are so with boxing, football, and other sports. And to demand that athletes risk their lives, immediately or not, for our pleasure and then to be shocked when those lives are then lost is inane. You don’t get to have it both ways. If you take pleasure in watching life-risking activity, you have to expect such outcomes. You need not like the outcomes, but do not feign shock.

Indy racing involves a person operating a machine at extremely high speeds in such a manner that the slightest mistake can prove disastrous, even fatal (for that driver or others), as was seen yesterday. I cannot find how that equates to what the modern definition of tragedy is. Wheldon understood what he was getting into, and while I do not mean to convey that he “got what he deserved” by any means, forgive me if my reaction to his death is “Well… yeah.”

If I drove my car on the Dan Ryan at 200 mph and crashed it and died, would my death be tragic? Of course not. You would call me an idiot and rightly so. So why should it be different for Wheldon then? Because he was a celebrity and we love to mourn celebrities? Because he died entertaining people?

Nobody should ever die as a price for our entertainment. Never. This is much of the reason I do not find motor sports entertaining. I feel awful for Wheldon’s wife who has lost a husband and his children who will never truly know their father. But I cannot bring myself to mourn a man who participated in an activity where death is always a real possibility.

And notice what I just wrote there, you who are ready to counter argue with “Theoretically you can die playing any sport.” Yes, one can die playing any sport. Or walking out the front door. Or cooking a meal. The odds are not comparable to getting in a hunk of metal and making it go at extreme speeds amongst other hunk of metal doing the same thing minute distances away. And not often in a straight line.

Nor is such a thing comparable to a cop or firefighter or soldier who dies in the line of duty, though he or she knew what he or she was getting into. Such professions are necessary, cars going fast for entertainment purposes are not.

But since Wheldon made the choices that led to his passing, perhaps his case may be deemed tragic in the Shakespearean sense. In the drama of Shakespeare and others there exists “dramatic irony,” which is when the audience knows something crucial to the plot that characters do not or refuse to acknowledge. As an audience member—a very distant one—I have long yelled out “Your sport is completely stupid because you’re risking your life to see who can operate machinery better.”

That angers participants and fans, I know. It’s okay. Rarely do “fanatic” and “logic” meet. Other audience and cast members expressed concerns yesterday, by the way, that the track in Vegas was too dangerous for a 34-car field at 225 mph, but I’m the bad guy, right?

But what I yell is dramatic irony. The characters do not hear me or will not acknowledge me. The race goes on. A life is lost that did not have to be.

There is your tragedy. Dramatic literary tragedy. And just as I do not feel bad for tragic heroes Macbeth or Brutus, I do not feel bad for Wheldon. But like those two tragic literary characters, I wish I could show him the error of his ways, prevent what happened, put him on the right path, not drive a car really fast in dangerous conditions for a living. But I can’t.

As a reader of tragic drama does, I mourn the situation, not the man. For as Cassius famously said to Brutus in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…”

More from Tim Baffoe
  • Schmutzie

    Maybe if people started bouncing off the walls like they did with Dale, I’d understand your cavalier attitude. But the fact is that while some people are very saddened over Dan Wheldon’s death, nobody is over-the-top grief-stricken, and certainly not to an extent that would merit this barely concealed grave-dancing. I understand you need to attract readers, but really…..telling other people how to react to sudden bad news is never a good idea, and this just comes off as a cheap attempt to shock.

    • Meatless Meatball

      What did Tim say that’s shocking, Schmutz?

  • Lil' Bycracke

    I do feel sorry for Wheldon’s family and his crew members. But they all knew the risks at hand. All the drivers, crew, and family. They accepted those risks when they got behind the wheel.

    Do we feel sorry for NFL players smashing their brains in and dying a slow but sure death? They know the risks and accept them too.

    But then again, all of us take risks on a daily basis. This is what living one’s life is all about.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    To wrench entirely from context, how much sharper than a serpent’s tooth are your words, Mr. Baffoe?

  • Glockster

    I think Tim is absolutely right with this. When it comes to dangerous jobs, driving racecars is just this side of being a test pilot. Perhaps all of the safety measures and relative safety have desensitized us to just how dangerous it is to push the envelope – but living on the edge is always going to be dangerous. That’s why it’s the edge and not our daily commute.

    None of this means that it isn’t sad, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the risks shouldn’t be reduced to the extent that is reasonable, but to be shocked at someone dying doing something that is dangerous is a bit much.

    And the drivers seem to understand this. They’ll get in their cars and go as fast as they can in the next race. Just like football players hit just as hard after seeing a colleague carted off the field. It’s what they do.

    • Denver Deadite

      Last weekend, a 16-year old high school football player died not long after taking a hit to the head. The official cause of death was bleeding on the brain.

      Although, I don’t recall seeing this kid’s name trending on Twitter after he died.

      The word tragedy is indeed overused and abused. It’s used in situations like Wheldon’s, or imo even worse, with the likes of an Amy Winehouse.

  • Beverly Brewmaster

    I don’t really care about racing and have no real feeling one way or the other about whether this guy deserved it or we should feel bad. My issue is with Mr. Baffoe’s rigid view of the English language, something that seems a bit troublesome coming from an English teacher. Tim, you note one definition of “tragedy” that comes from the Greeks and then suggest that “[i]t is now often used (erroneously) as an umbrella to describe anything unfortunate usually resulting in death.” The word “tragedy” originally meant “goat song.” Under your static view of linguistics, you could argue the Greeks themselves corrupted the word when they applied it to a specific genre of drama. Indeed, language is constantly evolving; should we be etymologically Amish, rejecting any definition of a word that came about post-Shakespeare? Post-Chaucer? When a soldier dies in Iraq or Afghanistan, should we not call it “tragic” because Euripides would never have written a play about it? I have a hard time believing you take such a rigid approach to the English language when you’re teaching the Modernists and Post-Modernists.

    • Meatless Meatball

      Dat dere Don DeLillo and his “postmodern linguistics” should get gone outta here. Bring back Chaucerman!

      • Murph

        You’re the Caller of the Show!

  • Hyman Roth

    THIS…is the business we have chosen…

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