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What happened to Robert Griffin III the other night raised questions and answers about machismo in sports — at all levels, about the wisdom of playing hurt, about being allowed to play hurt, about the expectation of playing hurt, about the relationship between players, coaches and team doctors when it comes to injury.
Who’s in charge when a call like that needs to be made? Who should be in charge?
You saw what happened. Griffin, who suffered an earlier knee injury, came back to play and play some more in Washington’s NFL playoff game against Seattle. As the game unfolded, the rookie quarterback hurt the knee again. Griffin told Redskins coach Mike Shanahan he was fine, even though it was obvious to anyone who watched that he was not fine. He was not the same player who had been so brilliant in leading Washington through the season and into the playoffs. He couldn’t cut on the leg, could neither run nor throw the way he previously had. And yet, he was left in the game — until a bad snap caused him to torque the knee, twisting it in a way it was never intended to twist, leaving him in a heap on the field.
Gone with the bend.
Now, an MRI is indicating that Griffin may have two partially torn ligaments in the joint.
So, what should have happened?
It’s a complicated question that goes all the way back to the socialization of everyone involved in modern sports — including the fans, including those of us who cover the sport, including those who coach it. We all get caught up in it. The expectation seems to be that an athlete can and should play hurt, as long as he’s not injured … whatever the hell that means … the difference, apparently, being the margin between pain and the prospect of causing further injury should a player go on playing.
I’m no doctor, but isn’t pain an indicator that something’s messed up? Here’s the problem: If we go by that measure, then nobody’s going to be playing football this late in the season because the game messes everyone up. We love the game, so we look the other way, and make up a bunch of fiction about pain being substantially different than injury.
Real men play hurt because that’s what real men, especially real men who make millions of dollars, are supposed to do, expected to do.
It’s not just football. The annals of sports are filled with the so-deemed heroic efforts of athletes who forge ahead, in the face of pain, to lead or inspire their teams to victory. And, then, there are the cases of athletes who remove themselves from the battle and suffer ridicule for doing so.
Think Curt Shilling with the blood-soaked sock. Think Jay Cutler with the sprained knee.
Every case is different. Every human being is different. But the backdrop for all of it is the same — that toughness and machismo are expected in the always physical, sometimes brutal world of sports.
The reward for a gladiator who pushes through pain and even risk for the good of the team is legendary. The cost for an athlete who shrinks away from pain and risk can haunt him for the rest of his career.
Remember a few years back, when Carlos Boozer didn’t play in that regular-season game that might have altered the Jazz’s postseason prospects had they won? Instead, he sat on the bench as they lost, because of some namby-pamby somethingorother about tiny muscle tears in his abdomen. Nobody but Boozer and his doctors knew for sure what was going on there, whether he could have played. But almost everyone, all of us, had a strong opinion about whether he should have tried.
There are thousands of cases like that one, and like Griffin’s, when athletes have played under physical duress, and when they haven’t played. If they say they can’t go, they don’t. If they say they can, then it’s up to coaches and doctors to make the call.
If it’s a head injury, it seems as though, more and more, it’s an automatic no-go. Whether that’s based on physical factors or liability issues, make your own guess. But it seems most people, with the benefit of hindsight, think Griffin should not have been in the game when he suffered that last knee injury on Sunday. A poll on the Washington Post’s website showed that 85 percent of readers believe Shanahan made a mistake in allowing Griffin to stay in the game after the quarterback aggravated his knee injury in the first quarter.
But, on Monday, Griffin himself wrote on Twitter: "Many may question, criticize & think they have all the right answers. But few have been in the line of fire in battle."
Not all, but many athletes are just like Griffin. They want to play, no matter what, especially in an elimination situation. And if they tell the coach they’re fine, the coach wants to believe them because the coach badly wants to win, too. The problem, in this case, beyond the theoretical and philosophical, was that Griffin, in a very pragmatic sense, was not the quarterback who gave Washington the best chance at victory. He couldn’t move and he couldn’t throw, even though his ego told him he could do both.
In a perfect world, the team’s physician, James Andrews, one of the most renowned orthopedists on the planet, would have advised Shanahan that Griffin must exit the game, and the coach, then, would have removed him.
We don’t live in a perfect world, though. We live in a world where toughness and machismo and winning are more important than good health, at least until the offseason comes around.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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