The origins and implications of a gruesome injury
The twist looked gruesome. Robert Griffin III, the wunderkind quarterback of the Washington Redskins, was attempting to plant his legs and scoop up a fumbled nap, and the ligaments in his knee seemed to just disappear. His knee rotated about 90 degrees too far. Football fans were reminded of the injury suffered by Redskins quarter Joe Theismann in 1985.
On television, the producer of Fox's coverage mercifully ordered only a few replays. Griffin walked off the field on his own accord, said a few words to his coach, Mike Shanahan, and went into the locker room. He had been gimpy from the start of the game, and it was showing well before the play. Immediately, on Twitter, Washington came together: Shanahan had sacrificed RG3's future for the sake of winning this one playoff game. He should be tarred and feathered. No! Fired! No, interred. Alive.
The context to this riot of anger about Shanahan's instant decision was an article in USA Today claiming that the ubiquitous orthopedic surgeon James Andrews had not in fact cleared Griffin to play in a previous game after Griffin had injured his knee, even though Shanahan claimed that the doctor had given the clearance.
So what happened? Did Shanahan act greedily? After the game, he told reporters that Griffin had wanted to play on initially; there was a distinction between being hurt and being injured, and Griffin was just hurting. He wanted to play through the pain. That's kind of natural; one would think that every player would want to soldier on and not leave a playoff game. The criticism leveled at Shanahan suggests at this point that the decision ought to be taken out of the hands of the players and given to coaches, who ought to consider the long-term ramifications of a particular situation. Indeed, Shanahan insisted that Redskins doctors had given their blessing at halftime: RG3 was in OK shape to play.
But here is where I part company with the critics: great athletes tend to have a moment where they test the limits of what's possible. Their coaches have to balance the legitimate worries about a player's health with the player's own sense of where he is in the game. There was obviously some risk that RG3's knee would blow out. And the Redskins do have a capable back-up quarterback. But RG3 was doing what young stars do: at great risk to himself, he was attempting to shoulder the burden of winning the game. And fans kind of want stars to do this.
Still, maybe the risk was too great. RG3 does seem to believe that he's a great player, in a charmingly modest way, and that's helped him be a great player, but it also permitted him to downplay a sick concussion he suffered early in the season and to (in this sense) try to accomplish a feat that his body would not allow. Coaches do have a responsibility to protect players from their own blind spots.
The NFL, which is facing a devastating reckoning from the years of untreated concussions suffered by players, is now hyper-vigilant about player safety. But they also encourage the creation of superstar legends; it is profitable and keeps butts in the seats. Washington, in particular, has needed an RG3 for a decade. His risky play, aided by coaches who were nurturing him and giving magical thinking the benefit of the doubt, feeds the legend. Hopefully it won't have cost him his career. Hopefully, RG3's own ambitions won't have cost him his career. The blame here, if there is blame, shouldn't just be on the coach.
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