Violence in Sports and RG3

For most of the fall, the Washington, D.C. area was subjected to an ongoing freakout over the Nationals’ unwillingness to have star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, fresh from Tommy John surgery, pitch in the playoffs. The team was unexpectedly very good, maybe even World Series good, and yet their coaches were determined to cap Strasburg’s work due to medical advice that was roundly criticized by fans, former players, and the local and national media – there were even calls for firings in management over the decision to “coddle” Strasburg and miss out on the chance at winning.

So it’s interesting, just four months later, to see the opposite effect in place in the case of Robert Griffin III, the ludicrously talented star quarterback, who insisted on being put back in the Redskins home playoff game Sunday even after reinjuring his previously strained knee. While I think Griffin should’ve been shut down at halftime given his limited ability, I imagine what the calls would be had that happened and the game ended with the same result (“A 75% RG3 is better than a 100% backup” would’ve been the likely chorus). Everyone regrets taking out the Lamborghini after it gets scratched.

What’s more interesting to me is the outrage at Griffin for “lying” about his injury and trying to play through pain … something that traditionally has been lauded as emblematic of toughness in sports. I still remember, as an eight-year-old kid, watching some quarterback with the odd name of Favre, weeks removed from having 30 inches of small intestine pulled out of his body after a near-fatal car accident, lead Southern Mississippi to a comeback victory over Alabama. In the age of the concussion, the progressive criticism of sports has taken on a louder tone in recent years, though there are still a few defenders. But there’s a deeper question here: do we think these traits are still laudable? Or should we teach kids that getting injured for a game just isn’t worth it?

Part of this begins with understanding the inherent cussed appeal of violence in sports like football and hockey, which some critics simply don’t. Pro athletes are nearly all risk takers, for whom violence is a challenge to be overcome, a mountain that demands climbing. Patrick Hruby explains it best:

If you want to understand why Redskins coach Mike Shanahan allowed his quarterback to play for most of a 24-14 NFL wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks at FedEx Field, despite an obvious knee injury – and why Griffin demanded as much – it helps to start with a story.

Once upon a time, there was a player at Eastern Illinois, a Division II school as far from the bright lights and big money of professional football as, well, the surface of Mars. One spring day during a practice scrimmage, the player was speared in the ribs, so hard he could barely breathe. He stayed in the game. Went home. Urinated blood. Began throwing up. He went to the emergency room, where doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong — because his ruptured kidney had been jammed behind his spine. The player passed out from the pain. His heart stopped. He was revived with a defibrillator. A priest administered last rites. Following kidney removal surgery, his football coach told him he would never play again. He was lucky to be alive. He responded by petitioning the school to be allowed to suit up. The player’s name? Mike Shanahan.

This post was adapted from today’s edition of The Transom, Ben Domenech’s indispensable daily news round up and commentary email. Subscribe here