In the tragic aftermath of Robert Griffin III (RG3)'s knee injury against Seattle, and his subsequent reconstructive surgery, the blame game has just begun. Prominent in the crosshairs is Redskins' coach Mike Shanahan, who, as the story goes, allowed playoff pressure to corrupt his judgment, playing the star quarterback despite known risks to RG3's health and long-term future. Bad coach, we scorn.
Then there's the doctor -- world-famous orthopedic surgeon and team physician James Andrews -- who says he never cleared RG3 to return to play on December 9 against the Ravens, when the initial injury occurred. He never felt comfortable with RG3's recovery, and suitability to finish the season. Now having sewn everything back together, and forecast a full recovery for the 2013 campaign, some think the good doctor should have intervened earlier. Everybody agrees the medical protocol wasn't optimal. Shame on you, sports medicine staff.
What about the young stud himself? Hey man, he's a gamer. Dude's competitive, wants to suit up regardless. Drag him off the field on a cart - he'll jump off and get right back on! Such is his commitment to his teammates and the game. Wow. Honor the brave gladiator, then scold him for being a bad example. Make ourselves feel better by blaming foolish youthful indiscretion.
All of this got me thinking -- what about RG3's team?
On my kitchen table, fresh off the reading list: Help the Helper, written by psychologist John Eliot, and Indiana Pacers' general manager Kevin Pritchard. Championing the performance potential of a selfless, team-first mentality, the title honors hall-of-fame basketball coach Dean Smith's famous "help" defense. The basic idea is that the highest-performing teams are comprised of individuals willing to give up personal glory to instead, do whatever it takes to help their teammates succeed. Hmm.
As a sports culture, we champion camaraderie, dedication of individuals to greater team goals, and willingness to sacrifice, individually, to achieve them. Is it the essence of selfless dedication to his team for RG3 to play through injury, sacrificing his body for the greater good? Or should his coach and doctor stop him, taking the heat themselves? Whose responsibility is it to decide? Is it possible to be objective and rational?
As much as we might want them to be, these decisions aren't always objective or clear-cut. Even the most experienced, thoughtful medical professionals in the world are making a reasoned, subjective decision. Even the most well-intentioned coach isn't immune to the pressure of the moment. And you certainly don't get to be a professional athlete without being a competitor, who wants to play whether or not it makes any sense. There's emotion involved.
Which is exactly why the most important people in this story are RG3's teammates. If the Washington Redskins are a team committed to their common success, willing to sacrifice to achieve it, and loyal to one another, there should have been 52 guys lining up to tell their young brother "Hey stud, we got this. Go get your body right. This sacrifice isn't yours to make." There should have been 52 guys telling their coach "Do what's best for RG3, whatever the docs say is right. We've got your back." RG3 should have had to go through 52 formidable obstacles to get back on the field. Is that what happened?
Coaches and management still have to take responsibility for a decision, based on informed guidance from the medical staff. But given that kind of support from the players, the conflict between RG3's health and what's best for the team would have been squashed. RG3 would still have wanted to play, but freed from guilt and obligation, he would have known that taking care of himself took care of his team. No single person had to be the hero. Anybody and everybody could step up. How empowering is that?
When we ask an athlete to suck it up and risk their health for the good of the team, we're asking everybody involved -- including that individual -- to focus on one player. Somehow we call that unselfish? Being unselfish means finding a way to elevate your game when a teammate is down. It's showing confidence in others when you know you're limited. It's recognizing that 52 extraordinarily capable guys playing their hearts out for each other beat 1 gutsy superstar and 52 sidekicks any day.
The important question to ask isn't "who's to blame?", but rather "how do the Redskins respond?" RG3's injury is serious -- his recovery formidable and full of uncertainty. What will his teammates do to support him? What will coaches and management do to get better? How will the culture of the organization evolve? That's where we'll learn what this team is made of.