Injured NFL players just can’t win. In the end, the culture of the game always wins.
Because in the NFL, if you don’t play through an injury, you’ll be thought of as soft. As a man lacking heart. You’ll be thought of as a quitter. That’s the culture of the game.
Just ask Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
But if you play through the injury, you are risking your health and your job in the NFL. All for a chance to win a single game.
Just ask Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Two winters ago, the Bears hosted the Packers in the NFC Championship game, and during the first half, Jay Cutler tore his MCL. When former Bears head coach Lovie Smith decided to pull him from the game, I, as a Bears fan, lost all hope.
Chicago lost the game without Cutler. But Cutler, however, lost something perhaps more valuable than what a game would be to a team or hope to a fan: his reputation.
As soon as Lovie Smith made his decision, current players, ex-players and analysts all across the country labeled Cutler as a quitter. Past and present NFL players took to Twitter to bash Cutler’s perceived weakness:
“Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart. Truth” – Deion Sanders
“If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT” – Darnell Dockett
“…When the going gets tough……..QUIT” – Maurice Jones Drew
Now fast-forward two years to last Sunday night’s wildcard playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Redskins. Griffin was hobbled by a sprained knee suffered on December 9th against the Baltimore Ravens. By halftime it had become evident that Griffin was playing on one leg.
All it took was one play, one awkward twist of the knee to show ESPN, along with every other media outlet, why NFL players should never play on a bum knee. Now, the consequences are seemingly understood. In Griffin’s case, he partially tore his ACL and LCL.
And now the media, the same media that branded Jay Cutler as a quitter for sitting out with a knee injury, is blaming RG3 for wanting to stay in the game. The same media that referred to Jay Cutler as “Jay Quitler” is blaming Mike Shanahan for keeping his quarterback in the game.
If that isn’t hypocrisy, I don’t know what is.
For players and coaches, it’s truly a no-win situation.
If Griffin didn’t play, chances were that he might be cast in the same light as Cutler. But when Griffin did play, he ended up injuring his knee more severely.
If Shanahan made the decision to bench Griffin, he would be criticized for not giving his star player a chance. But Shanahan allowed Griffin to play and now he’s chastised for being reckless.
So ESPN, Fox Sports, the NFL Network, and all the sports media will blame Robert Griffin III. They’ll blame Mike Shanahan. They should blame both.
But above all, you should blame the culture of the game.
In the NFL, the type of behavior that RG3 displayed isn’t considered heroic. It’s a behavior that players feel they’re supposed to exhibit.
It’s the culture of the game.
“I’m the quarterback, it doesn’t matter what percentage I am,” Griffin said after the game. “If you can play, you play.”
His head coach, Mike Shanahan, echoed that sentiment.
“He said to me, ‘Trust me, I want to be in there and I deserve to be in there,’” Shanahan said. “And I couldn’t disagree with him.”
But the NFL has the power and ability to help prevent injured players from playing and jeopardizing their health. The NFL has the power to help players avoid being called a quitter. The NFL has the power to start changing the culture of the game.
If it is truly serious about player safety, the NFL will give doctors unaffiliated with any team, the power to pull someone like RG3 out of a game.
Giving independent doctors more authority is truly a win-win situation. Griffin doesn’t get hurt, and the media can’t label him as a quitter.
The media will always find a way to stir something up, but the NFL can make it harder on them.
If the NFL is truly serious about player safety, changing the rules won’t be enough. It needs to change the culture.
The NFL can’t do it alone though. It’ll need the help of every major media outlet.
A long overdue apology to Jay Cutler would be a good start.