Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 10, 2013

Shame On The Redskins; And Shame On Us

The criticism directed at the Washington Redskins has been intense since the team’s season ended Sunday evening with a 24-14 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in a Wild Card playoff game. Fans and sportswriters alike have come down hard on head coach Mike Shanahan and team doctor James Andrews for leaving an obviously limited Robert Griffin III in the game until the quarterback could literally no longer stand up. On Wednesday Dr. Andrews operated on Griffin, reconstructing the anterior cruciate ligament and repairing a tear in the lateral collateral ligament of his right knee. The recovery period is uncertain, but it’s highly likely that Washington will be without its franchise quarterback for at least part of next season; insuring that the current anger will be renewed every time backup Kirk Cousins is unable to deliver a victory.

The anger is understandable in no small part because one didn’t need to be a future Hall of Fame head coach or a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon to see that Griffin’s continued presence was hurting the Redskins’ chances and increasing his risk of serious injury. Even casual fans watching on television could see that Griffin tweaked his already injured knee while trying to plant his leg on a pass late in the first quarter. At that point he had led two early drives that staked the Redskins to a 14-0 lead. He threw for just 25 more yards the rest of the game. By the second half he was running with all the mobility of a peg-legged pirate in cleats. With little more than six minutes remaining in the game he went down in a heap while trying to scoop up a low snap from center, his knee twisting in directions it’s not supposed to go.

After the game Shanahan attempted to distinguish between being hurt and being injured, insisting that Griffin had acknowledged the former but had steadfastly denied the latter. While it is true that by the postseason almost every NFL player still in action is playing hurt to some degree, it was a distinction that was belied by what anyone watching a flat screen could see. In addition, the coach was castigated for seemingly leaving the final decision up to a headstrong and proud 22-year old.

Because it’s taking place in Washington the RGIII drama is unfolding with a unique counterpoint. Last fall the Washington Nationals chose to shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg late in the season rather than risk overusing him during his first year back from Tommy John surgery. But a fair number of the fans and pundits who have spent the last few days singing the baseball team’s praises for taking the long view in contrast to what they see as the Redskins’ decision to attempt to win now at a potentially horrific cost are suffering from a convenient case of collective amnesia.

When Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo first raised the prospect of placing an innings limit on Strasburg the criticism was every bit as fierce as what is now being directed at the Redskins. Pundits, present and former players, and many fans all took turns deriding Rizzo and the Nats for “babying” Strasburg. With the team in the midst of a pennant race sportswriters questioned whether the general manager had taken leave of his senses; with some suggesting that he was depriving Strasburg of what might be his one career shot at postseason glory. When the minority of observers who supported Rizzo’s move pointed out that the Nationals had taken exactly the same approach in 2011 with Jordan Zimmermann the fact was dismissed as irrelevant, since that season’s team finished more than twenty games back of first place Philadelphia. Rizzo stuck to his guns and Strasburg’s last mound appearance was on September 8th. But when the Nationals lost to the Cardinals in the Division Series, despite leading the majors in wins during the regular season, there were any number of pundits who immediately went into “I told you so” mode.

As RGIII begins a long rehabilitation with his future uncertain, the fans and scribes who have spent the week castigating the Redskins would do well to consider the context in which this has all taken place. Doing so doesn’t absolve Shanahan or Andrews of their errors. This is especially true of the team physician, whose sole concern should be the health of the players and whose job security presumably doesn’t ride on how many games the team wins. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and the context in which Sunday’s game was played wasn’t created by Shanahan and Andrews.

The NFL is the premier sports league in North America, making vast sums of money from millions upon millions of fans. Part of its popularity stems from the fact that football at its highest professional level is an intentionally and extremely violent game. Every play begins with a dozen or more very large men hurtling themselves at each other across the line of scrimmage. As the size, strength, and conditioning of its players has improved, the NFL in recent years has had to constantly alter its rulebook to keep the violence and its inherent potential for injury contained. Yet injuries are commonplace and the long-term health effects of repeated hard hits are only just beginning to be seriously examined. But make no mistake; the violence and the inherent danger of the sport are two elements that help to fill stadiums and boost TV ratings, and while the level of danger may be greater than ever, that has always been true. One of the most iconic photographs in the history of the NFL is of Giants quarterback Y. A. Tittle kneeling on the ground near the goal line after a 1964 defeat. Tittle’s helmet is off and blood is streaming down his bald head. Now as then, every NFL venue is a Coliseum, and NFL players are our gladiators.

Accompanying that aspect of the NFL are twin expectations that have become norms in all our sports. The first, as Shanahan’s post-game comments suggest, is that our heroes are expected to play until they must be carried from the field. The gladiators weren’t allowed to retire from the ring because they were hurt, and we don’t expect our modern-day players to do so either. In the 2011 NFC championship Bears quarterback Jay Cutler left the game early in the third quarter. Because Chicago failed to immediately tell the media that Cutler had been pulled by head coach Lovie Smith on the advice of the team’s medical staff because of a knee injury, social media outlets lit up with fans and even other NFL players mocking Cutler as a quitter and a weakling before the game was even over. The focus on “manning up” may be foolish, but that hasn’t stopped it from being pervasive.

Equally real is the outsized emphasis on immediate gratification. While this also pervades all our sports it was a football coach, UCLA’s Red Sanders who coined the phrase “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Another football coach, Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi, seized upon the phrase and made it part of our sporting lore. The day after the regular season ended seven NFL head coaches were fired, including three who had taken their teams to the Super Bowl. But neither they nor the others who got the ax, nor the five general managers also fired that day had done enough right now to keep their jobs.

The visceral thrill of violence, the expectation that our heroes will at least figuratively die on the field if necessary, and the demand to win and win now; these are what pack stadiums on Sundays and draw millions to their television sets. From Commissioner Roger Goodell to team owners to coaches to players and certainly to millions of fans, we all feed off of and perpetuate the NFL’s reality and the twin norms of all professional sports. Of course we can hope that at a crucial moment a coach or a doctor or someone will wrench himself free of this unrealistic context in which the games are played. Of course we can lament the result when they fail to do so. But the last thing we ought to be is surprised.

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Responses

  1. Mike, Fantastic article. I have to admit to not being much of a football fan, but I’ve watched enough over the years to see that you are exactly right.
    Nice job,
    Bill

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your kind words. My own experience is that an afternoon at an NFL stadium is a decidedly more frenzied and “take no prisoners” experience than one at a ballfield. Perhaps it’s because they only play one tenth the number of games.

      Thanks again,
      Mike

  2. Hi, I just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for The Reality Blog award. You can find out more about this over on my blog.
    Take care,
    Bill

    • Bill,

      Thank you so much. I had just finished reading your post on your own well-deserved nomination when I received notice of your comment here. I was very happy for you, and then both humbled and stunned when I saw my site on your list of nominees.

      Michael

      • You’re very welcome, Michael.


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