Last Sunday the Washington Redskins lost more than a playoff game. Their star rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, a.k.a. “RG3,” hobbled around on a previously sprained, heavily braced knee before re-injuring the joint. It was apparent Griffin was playing hurt, and the situation worsened until the fourth quarter, when the knee badly buckled and he had left the game. He had surgery for a pair of damaged ligaments Wednesday, and fans across the league electrified by Griffin’s speedy brilliance are left wondering if he will be diminished in the future.
Earlier Sunday, just up the beltway from D.C., Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis played the final home game of his legendary career, to great fanfare. Lewis rushed back to the field from a torn triceps tendon that seemed to end his season two months ago, and played with an enormous brace similar to the one Griffin wore. Lewis not only made it through the game, but played better than most onlookers expected, finishing with a dozen tackles.
In the aftermath of the action, public sentiment demolished Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for letting his franchise quarterback risk further injury, especially given the horrendous condition of the field on which the game was played. Few blamed Griffin for insisting—demanding, in fact—that he could play; after all, he would lose credibility as team captain if had done so.
Lewis, meanwhile, was praised for his toughness. True, he is not a youngster, and doesn’t play the sport’s most important position. Nevertheless, the contrast was stark: Lewis was celebrated for his career spent colliding at top speed with other players, while Shanahan was ripped for letting his player take part.
Football is suffused with a “warrior mentality,” far more than other sports. The game is not for the meek, but players who play well through pain are granted heroism beyond that of the merely sublime. The players may enforce the code behind closed locker room doors, but it is a mindset that is in large part fostered by the media.
Lewis, of course, is the very embodiment of what the pigskin commentariat desires from our gladiators, combining the passionate inspiration of a revivalist preacher with the brutality of a sadist (albeit tempered by an almost tender side that comes out away from the field). He is the very essence of the muscular Christianity he espouses.
But Lewis also dropped what should have been a simple interception in the playoff game Sunday. Had his team lost, would there be a drumbeat of criticism over Lewis suiting up when obviously compromised? Would his coach, John Harbaugh, receive similar heat to what Shanahan is getting? When Griffin played the week before the playoff game on that gimpy right leg, and the Skins pulled out a crucial win, nary a peep of criticism was directed Shanahan’s way.
The larger point is that the culture of football coverage worships the tough guy who rises above such mortal irritations like pain and twisted limbs. NFL Films, the league’s longtime propaganda arm, has raised this admiration of gutting out injuries to cultish devotion, crafting epics of bravery for footballers as Homer once did for Hector.
Lawrence Taylor may have been the best defensive player ever, but the performance of his that endures came on Monday Night Football against New Orleans in 1988, when he destroyed the Saints despite playing in a harness with excruciating shoulder and chest injuries. Emmitt Smith may have scored more touchdowns than anyone in NFL history, but he is revered for his exceptional game against the Giants in 1994 when he played with a separated shoulder and helped win a vital late-season game.
“He sucked it up for his boys,” one of his teammates said reverentially of Smith after the game. In retirement, Smith said he would definitely lie to a trainer about the extent of an injury if it meant he could keep playing.
No doubt Junior Seau, the former Chargers great who committed suicide last May, put the game above his health on multiple occasions throughout his sterling career. On Thursday it was revealed by ESPN that Seau’s brain showed signs of chronic trauma, a condition that may well have led to his taking his own life. It’s an afterword not likely to be mentioned by NFL Films.
Meanwhile, the dozens of TV programs featuring dudes talking football, not to mention the thousands of similar radio shows, are replete with talk of how the modern game isn’t “real football,” with safety concerns taking all the true grit out of the sport. Over in the social-media realm, current and former players weigh in, pressuring their brethren to “man up” in similar fashion as their predecessors and colleagues, or be castigated as Jay Cutler and LaDainian Tomlinson were after not being carried off on their shields.
Lewis, as it happens, will have a sizable platform from which to castigate or inspire the concussed and the folded and spindled. He reportedly is already ticketed for ESPN’s Monday Night Football’s shoulder programming, taking part in the pre- and post-game repartee. His on-air colleagues should be pumped up for telecasts as never before (one wonders if Lewis will do his patented “squirrel dance” on the set), but his mere presence on national television will only serve as a reminder of the rewards of the warrior mentality (as though the litany of national television ads and hagiographical features on Lewis over the years didn’t pound home that point enough).
Remember that when the next player gets “jacked up,” to use ESPN’s bygone phraseology for being rendered hors de combat. When the time comes to make a decision about going back into the fray, will the player be thinking about Junior Seau, or Ray Lewis? My money’s on Ray Ray.