If you want to see the stark difference between the culture of baseball and the culture of football. look no further than Washington, D.C., where the city’s sports fans are in mourning for the second time in barely three months’ time. The surging Redskins just met play-off elimination, because their young star quarterback was injured but allowed to stay in the game. Back in October, the city’s new sports darlings, baseball’s Nationals, were eliminated in their first play-off round, in part, fans believe, because the team wouldn’t let its completely healthy young star pitcher play for fear that he would get injured.
This week everyone from my local sandwich shop proprietor to the driver of the cab I just got out of is furious at Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for allowing the obviously hobbled Robert Griffin III to stay in the doomed game against the Seattle Seahawks when there was a competent back-up on the bench. And some, like Yahoo! sportswriter Dan Wetzel, are blaming Griffin, for “lying”:
“Robert Griffin III couldn’t do much of anything Sunday except lie, which is what he’s been trained to do in situations like this.
Lie to himself that he can still deliver like no backup could. Lie to his coach that this was nothing big. Lie to the doctors who tried to assess him in the swirl of a playoff sideline. So Robert Griffin III lied, which is to be excused because this is a sport that rewards toughness in the face of common sense, a culture that celebrates the warrior who is willing to leave everything on the field, a business that believes such lies are part of the road to greatness.”
I don’t know whether Griffin lied or not; I strongly suspect he didn’t. A lie requires that you don’t believe what you say, and are trying to deceive someone. Athletes, and especially those blessed with greatness like “RG III,” as he is known in D.C., often believe that what normal people would call a debilitating injury is just another obstacle that can be overcome with determination, talent and grit. The thing is, sometimes it can. Older Redskins fans can remember watching an ancient Sonny Jurgenson, old and barely able to walk, coming off the bench in the last two minutes of seemingly lost games and tossing the Skins to improbable triumph with his ageless right arm. Baseball fans recall watching the classic first game of the 1988 World Series, when the seemingly beaten Dodgers sent a crippled Kirk Gibson up to pinch-hit in the 9th inning against the best relief pitcher alive, Dennis Eckersley. I remember mocking the Dodger’s manager for allowing Gibson to bat. “Look at him! He can barely walk! They’re giving up!” Naturally, which is to say, just like Roy Hobbs in “The Natural,” Gibson hit one of the most famous and improbable game-winning home runs since “The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff.”
What makes players like Griffin and Gibson special (I am sure manager Tommy Lasorda asked Kirk, who was unable to play the field because of a badly injured hamstring, “Can you hit?” And he said, “Sure I can!”) is that they always think they can prevail over pain and adversity. That’s one of the things that make them great—that, and the fact that they are right much of the time. Consequently, a player’s insistence that he can play through injuries, even serious ones, is regarded in all sports as a marker of greatness, and the absence of that quality a damning sign that the player is soft, cowardly, unmotivated, selfish, or lacking confidence. This applies to leaders as well. If you boast, as John Paul Jones did in the naval battle that made him a hero, “I have not yet begun to fight!” despite the fact that any objective observer would say you had already been defeated, and lose, you are a preening buffoon. If you win, everyone will say, “He knew he would prevail, on sheer will and brilliance. This is what makes a great leader!” It’s true.
And it isn’t.
An athlete playing injured is the end result of one of the most complex conflicts of interest calculations in any profession. It is selfish—give up your spot on the field, and you never know if you will ever get it back. The iconic example is Wally Pipp, an established first baseman for the New York Yankees in the 1920′s, who was persuaded to take a game off mid-season in 1925, when he wasn’t feeling up to snuff. His unknown replacement was Lou Gehrig, who never came out of the line-up until the day he retired, setting baseball’s “Iron Man” record for consecutive games played, and becoming one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history. Every sport has similar if not as dramatic stories. Yet playing injured is also regarded as the ultimate act of sacrifice, a player risking his career and being willing to perform at a diminished level because the team relies on him. Coming out of the game after admitting injury is also simultaneously selfish ( the player is protecting himself for his next contract) and courageous (“It’s for the good of the team–put that Gehrig kid in!”).
In other words, the player is risking damnation either way. Small wonder, then, that players like Griffin will always gravitate to playing injured rather than gracefully retiring to the bench. At least on the field, they are masters of their own fates. And because they are great players, they can pull a Roy Hobbs more frequently than logic would suggest. The so-called “lies” of Robert Griffin III constitute a true Catch-22: there is no right way to go. The player is at the mercy of moral luck*, consequentialism** and later criticism based on hindsight bias.*** “Of course,” Wetzel and his ilk will say, “Look at what happened! He couldn’t do it! He hurt the team!” If he had thrown one more touchdown pass, though, it would have been just another example of a great player showing the unique mixture of heart and talent that make him great.
* Moral Luck: the situation where the ethical or unethical verdict regarding conduct is based on unpredictable factors outside the actor’s control
** Consequentialism: the invalid theory that the rightness or wrongfulness of conduct depends on whether it produces desirable results
*** Hindsight bias: the illusion that it was obvious what the right course of action was before a choice is made, when it is really only obvious after the results of the conduct are known.