"We're all complicit in where sport has gone," said director of Northeastern University's Sport in Society Dan Lebowitz. "There's a responsibility in all of us as members of a functioning, inclusive society....It's a tug of war: the loving of the pushing of the envelope, but also stepping outside of ourselves and asking the question, have we perverted the essence and beauty of sport and teamwork?"
Dr. Omer Mei-Dan understands both sides of it: he's an extreme athlete, a former Red Bull BASE jumper, and a sports medicine doctor who recently co-authored of a textbook, "Adventure and Extreme Sports Injuries."
"People get injured and die in extreme sports. Everyone understands that; it's part of the deal," he said. "We're trying to minimize the risks by applying better techniques and training and better protection...Is the sponsor responsible? It's a fair question, but I don't think that's the case. People like that do it because they want to. They have the right personality to pursue this type of activity. I don't think they're doing it because of the sponsor or to make money."
A few things have changed since Mei-Dan was at one of the first X Games, however: social media has exposed the minute details of extreme sports to the masses. That's led to more participants in many of the sports: 10 years ago, there were less than 500 active BASE jumpers, he says. Now, there are 3,000 globally. At the same time, safety precautions -- helmets, most prominently -- have become mainstream.
"It came from the more extreme daredevils; people saw them wearing helmets and thought, oh, maybe wearing helmets is cool and it also protects my brain," Mei-Dan said.
Despite an increase in helmet use, however, skiing and snowboarding head injuries requiring emergency care actually increased between 2004 and 2010, a 2012 study showed. That could mean that more novices are hitting the slopes, or that helmets may create a false sense of security. What is clear is that glamorizing risk-taking has become the norm.
"We bow down to the sensational in sports, where we glamorize the incredible violence and risk-taking and then sometimes we don't like the outgrowth," Lebowitz said. "There's a certain level of expectation that people are looking for: these incredible tricks of hanging off a snowmobile with one arm. There's this incredible balance in fueling interest by paying attention to the sensational and maintaining some semblance of it being a sporting event."