This was written last week for The Good Point -- and then the Hall of Fame voting was announced, and I quickly wrote a different article instead.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a fan of the Washington Redskins.
Here are the facts of the matter at hand: On Sunday, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III entered Washington’s playoff game against the Seahawks with a brace protecting a previously damaged right knee. The injury was aggravated early on, visibly limiting Griffin’s mobility and ability to pass. Head coach Mike Shanahan questioned Griffin about whether or not he was still able to play. Griffin responded that he was “hurting but not injured.” Shanahan elected to keep Griffin in the game.
It turned out to be a terrible mistake.
In the second half, reaching for a low snap, Griffin tore up his knee all the more. While the ball lay loose near his feet, RG3 lay prone on his belly, ailing and helpless, unable to move. The FedEx Field crowd, horrified, fell silent.
Three days later, in the words of Dr. James Andrews, Robert Griffin III “had a direct repair of his LCL and a re-do of his previous ACL reconstruction." (“Surgeon sheds light on the procedure” - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/football-insider/wp/2013/01/09/robert-griffins-acl-reconstructed-again-lcl-repaired-surgeon-says/)
Why did Mike Shanahan stay with his talented quarterback and his fragile right knee?
You know those people who spout phrases like “Live like you’re dying” and “Live life to the fullest” and “Live like there’s no tomorrow”? They’re fools. Barring the arrival of an armageddon-bearing meteorite, there will be a tomorrow -- and today’s actions will have repercussions. Jobs and relationships come to quick, unexpected ends. Money, even a ton of it, has a way of disappearing fast. Success, fame, and health are equally fleeting. (For this reason, the NFL and NBA hold seminars for its rookies to illustrate the importance of long-range planning.)
The Washington Redskins had mortgaged their future to acquire Robert Griffin III, trading a treasure chest of draft picks to the St. Louis Rams in order to select him second overall in April 2012. The team then focused its marketing machine behind him, transforming Griffin into the face of the franchise. While Mike Shanahan was placing the fate of the 2012 season upon RG3’s damaged knee, the Redskins’ front office was simultaneously placing its hope and profits for the next decade upon the youngster’s promising future.
In the flash of the moment that was Sunday afternoon’s Redskins/Seahawks playoff tilt, all that mattered to both Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III was today, the moment: the game. In the instant that the head coach stayed with his starting quarterback, they both ignored all possible ramifications in order to achieve the shortest of short-term goals. They forgot about tomorrow.
Welcome to a teeth-gritting tomorrow in Washington.
This is all similar to a baseball manager staying with his overworked starting pitcher to the point of no return and Tommy John reconstructive surgery, or even to the way a teenager will speed recklessly through town in her/his new car, texting all the while, without a thought in the world directed toward her/his own mortality. It is tunnel vision at its worst.
There was a second cause to Griffin’s surgery-requiring injury, and it rests directly on the player and indirectly on the institution of sports.
There is a sense of honor, strength, and machismo to athletics. Injuries are expected; no one manages to escape them. Contact sports cause collisions, fractures, trauma, and tears. Non-contact sports cause injuries through constant repetition beyond what the body is used to. Because of this, players are used to competing while “hurting,” as Griffin described it. Rarely is anyone at a true 100%, especially midway through a season. A more serious injury causes a player to sit out for a requisite number of games and could very well cost her/him a regular spot in the lineup. An injury can also affect team chemistry; if a player sits out several games due to an ailment, it better be serious or teammates will start to grumble about the player’s toughness. Teammates aren't the best doctors, either. I knew of one player who was complaining of back pain, requiring him to sit out an increasing number of games as the season went on. His fellow players scoffed at him. As it turned out, he had several fractured vertebrae. Scoff now.
All of these factors combine to cause an athlete to play through pain, often at the risk (as RG3 discovered) of aggravating the injury all the more. On a different baseball team I was with, the athletic trainer had to call a clubhouse meeting to tell the players, in no uncertain terms, to let him know immediately if they were hurting. This followed on the heels of a pitcher attempting to work through pain, hiding an injury, and sending himself right to the DL with an even worse problem than before.
The constant metaphor of relating sports is to battle/war, with athletes serving as surrogate soldiers/warriors, really hurts here. In war, a soldier’s sacrifice of his own well-being is exalted, thereby inspiring the athlete to believe he is doing the same when he lays his own well-being on the line for his team. It’s a farce of an analogy. The soldier fights for a cause far greater than himself; his own destiny may be understandably sacrificed to save the lives of those around him and the loved ones he fights for back home. What is the athlete’s cause? His team? What possible long-term good does his sacrifice of his own future bring? If a pitcher takes to the mound with one more pitch left in his swollen elbow, or Robert Griffin III takes to the field with his knee hanging on by a thread, the true attraction of sports in our society has been lost.
We should not, must not, ask our athletes to sacrifice themselves for their coaches and for us as if they were doomed gladiators in ancient Rome. These are young women and men in the prime of their athletic lives. We are fortunate to watch them and cheer for them, in all of their greatness. If we let them lose sight of their own humanity -- heck, if we ourselves lose sight of their humanity -- then we will have lost sight of our own tomorrow as well.