Robert Griffin III, Wally Pipp, and the Catch-22 of Lies

Dan Wetzel would have loved Wally Pipp

Dan Wetzel would have loved Wally Pipp

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.


Filed under Character, History, Leadership, Sports

20 responses to “Robert Griffin III, Wally Pipp, and the Catch-22 of Lies

  1. Really interesting piece, Jack. I have nothing in particular to add, but sometimes just saying “good job” will have to suffice as a comment.

  2. It is interesting to compare baseball to football regarding how fans judge some of the decisions that coaches make.

    Baseball is so much more of a statistically driven game — even the all-time best of hitters will fail over 6 times out of 10 — that people tend to give the manager a bit more leeway when one of his moves doesn’t work. Even Ted Williams or Babe Ruth didn’t always get a hit in any particular at bat and knowledgeable fans understand that — at least some of the time.

    Football, I think, is much more consequentialist. Even if statistics show that your team will make it on 4th and 6 inches 80% of the time, if it doesn’t work this particular time the coach is an idiot for doing it. Of course if he doesn’t go for it, he is then probably an idiot or spineless……

  3. Anthony

    Part of the solution is to take medical professionals off the payroll of the team and make them union employees. I don’t mean to cast any aspersions, but I don’t think RG3 is cleared to play with a doctor “holding his breath” if that doctor answers to a body whose explicit goal is the player’s well-being, rather than an organization with other priorities.

    • tgt

      In this situation, there is much conflict about what the medical officials say they said and what the coaches say the medical officials said.

  4. Yet another excellent piece. I am sending this link to my sports loving Redskins fan son. Here’s something I found on a facebook page that surely looks to be RGIII’s personal statements. If this were an impersonation, I’m pretty sure it would have been killed before it got over 300,000 likes.

    Robert Griffin III Official
    352,216 likes • 128,827 talking about this

    From today:
    Thank you for your prayers and support. I love God, my family, my team, the fans, & I love this game. See you guys next season.

    From Monday:
    I thank God for perspective and because of that I appreciate the support from everyone. I also appreciate the criticism.

    Many may question, criticize & think they have all the right answers. But few have been in the line of fire in battle.

    When adversity strikes you respond in one of two ways….You step aside and give in..Or you step up and fight.

    The only comment that gives me pause is the military metaphor. While I understand people refer to the game of football as a “battlefield”, his saying “But few have been in the line of fire in battle” doesn’t sit too well with me. I get what he is saying – unless you are a NFL QB, he won’t give much weight to your opinions. But being a professional athlete getting paid what he does to play a sport for people’s entertainment is nothing like being in the “line of fire in a battle”. Nothing at all.

    I really respect the young man and his father HAS been in the line of fire in a battle, so I will forgive him.

    • tgt

      It’s a common metaphor that applies to other situations. Going to a customer meeting in my field is nothing like the battlefield, but the metaphor is still common. Attacking its usage here is weird. Your reason for excusing its usage is also weird.

      • Having friends who have lost limbs, their way of life and even their lives in complete sacrifice for their Country in the line of fire on a battlefield affects how the use of this metaphor sits with me. Call it weird – call it whatever you want. It is nothing like playing a football game or going to a customer meeting. Nothing at all. After 11 years of war and three combat deployments I get to be a bit sensitive to these remarks. Only a small percent of Americans shoulder this burden, so I don’t expect you to get it.

        • tgt

          What you get for your service is gratitude. You don’t get a free pass on special pleading. The metaphor is in common parlance and was appropriate. If you can’t separate metaphor from reality, then I feel sorry for what has happened to you, and I hope you get the help you need to deal with it.

          • It’s a sensitivity, not a mental disorder. I understand Robert’s use of the metaphor. It just touched a nerve. I wonder why you feel it is necessary to label someone who has a different reaction to you as “weird” and why, when someone responds in a way you find to be weird that you think they have a mental disorder requiring treatment? Not sure what you mean by “special pleading” Are you saying that I’m saying I’m special? I am different. I make up the small percent of Americans who have had to consider war in a very real way every day for 11 years but I never said that made me special. It makes me different from 99% of Americans and that is a fact. My point is this – few have been in the line of fire in battle.

            • tgt

              Having an issue with a standard and usual statement is weird.

              If you can’t handle war metaphors, that is clearly a mental/emotional problem. It’s something that I would think that you would want to work on. There’s no intent to put you down here or lessen your experiences. Everyone has issues with one thing or another. For instance, I don’t process new situations well. It’s something I work on.

              Special Pleading is a logical fallacy. You are arguing that war metaphors are inappropriate for people who weren’t actually on a real battlefield (i.e., those that don’t have your specific experience). You are making a special case for war metaphors that does not apply generally.

              • Lay off, you prating coxcomb.

                Arguing that this is a fallacy of special pleading is loose at best.

                You must make the claim that actually being in the line of fire, as the distinguishing characteristic between those who can rightly compare an experience to “being in the line of fire” from those who cannot, is an irrelevant characteristic for such a distinction.

                That is foolish, arrogant, and naive. In light of the fact that T Bird indicated he had no problem with the “battle” part of the quote and more with the “in the line of fire” part.

                Your claim that “being in in the line of fire” is a comparison oft used in many situations is hasty, especially as the only source of back up for the claim is your own personal experience. As we know, you are defense contractor; I’d say the representative sample of your experience is skewed in regards to how often things are related to war in your client interactions.

                But as long as personal experience suffices, I deal with plenty of clients, from a wide array of industries, and only once have I ever heard a military metaphor used (and it was used by me, and no one understood it)…and it wasn’t “in the line of fire”.

                So, you’ve perused the target list and consulted your decision matrix and opted to commit your force to a frontal assault then discovered the objective occupied by a non-threat offering no serious pay-off from the attack. Now, you’ve left with catastrophic casualties. You’ve joined the ranks of the 7th Earl of Cardigan. However, knowing the TGT doctrinal template, you’ll likely attempt a follow-on operation. Peruse that metaphor.

                • I re-emphasize that he said he has no problem with people using the metaphor, he has merely noted that they have no idea what truly understanding the metaphor means.

                  • tgt

                    You reiterate a falsehood:

                    “The only comment that gives me pause is the military metaphor. While I understand people refer to the game of football as a “battlefield”, his saying “But few have been in the line of fire in battle” doesn’t sit too well with me. I get what he is saying – unless you are a NFL QB, he won’t give much weight to your opinions. But being a professional athlete getting paid what he does to play a sport for people’s entertainment is nothing like being in the “line of fire in a battle”. Nothing at all.

                    I really respect the young man and his father HAS been in the line of fire in a battle, so I will forgive him.”

                    he has a problem with it. He just will let it go because Griffin’s father was in the military.

                    • Boy, I don’t understand this argument at ALL. It’s right up there with saying Sarah Palin’s targets over vulnerable Democrats on her campaign map was calling for them to be shot. Like all metaphors, “in the line of fire,” is clear and unambiguous when used in a non-battle context. So what’s the problem? I’ve used it to describe commenters who get caught in the crossfire of arguments like this one. I’ve used it to describe actors who blunder into pulling focus when they are on stage during a confrontation between two other characters. I used it just yesterday when I was throwing a ball for my Jack Russell and clocked my wife in the head.

                      If the point of the metaphor is obvious and the basis for the comparison is clear, why would anyone think it denigrates actual battle experience? “Put in harms way” is a synonym—who is confused by this? If I say the cheerleaders in “Animal House” were “in the line of fire” when Bluto started his food fight in the cafeteria, would any sane person say, “How dare you! You have no idea what you’re talking about! Mashed potatoes are NOTHING like bullets! YOU try fighting a real battle with mashed potatoes! Believe me, bucko, you’d be dead so fast, you wouldn’t know what hit you!”


                    • tgt


                      Exactly. I’d also like to note that I have a longer comment to tex awaiting moderation, as I grabbed links to using “in the line of fire” to describe all sorts of situations.

                    • Jack,

                      There’s no issue with the metaphor from me. I’m merely pointing out how it bothered T Bird. Many people say “in the line of fire”, I got my references above mixed up.

                      T Bird’s beef, seems mostly to do with the tone of the quote in its entirety. Taking T Bird’s assertion of his own experience, I find it trivial for any individual, even modest individuals, to be bothered by the quote, in its entirety and tone, and cherry pick it as TGT did and begin to split hairs after the cherry picking. Pretty trivial.

                      And no, it isn’t the ‘courtier’s reply’. It is Special Pleading, loosely so, in the form I described in my paragraph above.

                • tgt

                  This is just the courtier’s reply, followed by a denial of common information and a direct attack on me. “In the line of fire” is a well known idiom, but since you doubt such:

                  That covers everything from the Dixie Chicks to christian talk radio to wall street to journalists (not in war zones) being in the line of fire.

                  The Courtier’s reply may be a more appropriate a fallacy for T. Bird’s comments. I went back and forth, and I think that both apply.

  5. tgt

    Pipp’s classic, but classic is often forgotten. The 49ers Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick switch was probably high in Griffin’s mind. Especially after how well Cousins played in relief against Baltimore.

  6. Pingback: Robert Griffin III, Wally Pipp, and the Catch-22 of Lies | Ethics Alarms | Sports Ethics: Doyle, S. |

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