01/07/2013 08:56 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

RG3's Injury Fuels the Player Safety Debate

You know the facts by now.

Robert Griffin III, the Redskins' quarterback and best player, entered his playoff debut with a nagging knee injury. He played through pain in the team's final two regular season games, and led the Redskins to touchdowns on their first two drives Sunday. On the second drive he tweaked his knee. He hobbled through the rest of the game, struggling badly as the Seahawks took the lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, Griffin crumpled to the poorly maintained grass at FedEx Field. He fumbled the football, his team's chances along with it, and was removed from the game.

Then things got interesting.

Griffin's injury sparked a continuation of the debate over player safety, one of the most prevalent and controversial topics swarming around the NFL. As Roger Goodell rewrites the rule book, many say that changes won't truly come until the culture around football changes too. That has been slower, and many debate if it will ever happen.

If the culture is changing, Sunday was a clear indication. Griffin was injured on a fluke play -- a fumbled snap, an awkward turn and a buckled knee. His injury wasn't directly related to the controversy surrounding defenseless receivers and helmet-to-helmet hits, but it was connected to that topic. It was about the culture. Should he have played through the pain, or should he have stayed on the bench?


Twitter has changed the way fans consume sports. Instead of waiting for tomorrow's paper or even tonight's blog post, we have instantaneous opinions from a large pool of experts. Even fans who don't use Twitter see them woven into broadcasts and news stories.

What I saw on Twitter Sunday surprised me. Within minutes of the injury, analysts and reporters from many outlets tweeted that Griffin shouldn't have been in the game, with many heaping blame on head coach Mike Shanahan.

My surprise was twofold. First, I felt the criticism was unfairly based on the situation's outcome instead of its probabilities. Second, it exposed some extremely hypocritical viewpoints among fans and media members alike.

It's easy to say in hindsight that RG3 shouldn't have been in the game because he was risking a more serious injury. But that wasn't the commentary before the play. Most tweets about Kirk Cousins framed the decision based on the Redskins' chances of winning, not Griffin's risk to future injury. Rhetorical questions like, "If you're Mike Shanahan what do you do?" only later turned into declarative statements like, "Shanahan should be fired for letting him play!"

The sudden change in viewpoint was bolstered by outcomes-based logic. It's no different from a fake field goal being praised when it works and criticized when it doesn't.

Regarding my second point, think about what happened on Twitter just hours before Griffin's injury. The Ravens' Bernard Pollard was flagged for a personal foul in the day's early game, which also triggered an outpouring on Twitter, almost universally complaining about the call.

Many of the same people who declared that Griffin shouldn't have been on the field spent their afternoon complaining that the game is getting too soft, and that you can't hit anybody anymore.

The disconnect is fascinating.


Since the day I started watching sports, I've been conditioned to believe that toughness ought to be idolized above nearly all else. Had Griffin led his team to a comeback win on one leg, these same writers now criticizing Shanahan would have instead penned majestic pieces worshipping his toughness. This game would have spent eternity on Top 10 lists next to Willis Reed's game and Kirk Gibson's.

We glorify toughness in every sport. R. A. Dickey won a Cy Young Award and then revealed he spent the whole season with an abdominal tear. It was added to his list of accomplishments, how gritty he was to pitch through injury. Nobody criticized him for risking more serious injury, though the Mets still owed him millions of dollars to pitch in 2013.

Brett Favre became an idol because no injury could keep him out of a game. Dez Bryant was praised for playing through an injury during the Cowboys' playoff push, even though he risked permanent damage to his finger.

Adrian Peterson will likely win the MVP because he rushed back from injury. He's being rewarded for how he played before he was 100 percent. After all, he never would have eclipsed 2,000 yards had he waited until he was fully healthy.

People are blaming Shanahan because Griffin happened to get injured. Remember that the Twittersphere mercilessly ripped Jay Cutler for sitting out a playoff game two seasons ago, and his image hasn't recovered.

Player safety is not a simple issue. It has many complicated layers, and public opinion shifts with every high-profile incident. It's perfectly fine if this game changes the way people think about the issue, but we shouldn't let the outcome determine our viewpoint on a case-by-case basis.


Griffin is one of the most likeable players in the NFL. He knows his legacy will be molded by his playoff success, and he cares about that. Watching him battle through an injury shaped one of the most compelling football games of the entire season.

This isn't an argument about player safety; it's about the culture of sports. It's about the way we deify Willis Reed and vilify Jay Cutler, and whether or not we'll continue to judge athletes that way in the future.

I find it hard to believe we won't.

I think we just live in a society that constantly wants somebody to blame. Every win needs a hero and every loss needs a goat. We all want to crack jokes and somebody needs to be the butt. And we need to cast these roles immediately.

The negativity surrounding Griffin's injury shouldn't detract from the reason so many people were tweeting about the game in the first place: It was captivating to watch him compete.

It was everything we've been conditioned to love about sports.