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When Coaches Risk A Player's Health For A Win


Meanwhile, NFL fans across the country are still buzzing about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, known to most as RGIII. He had surgery just this morning to repair a torn ligament and to assess additional damage in his right knee. RGIII initially injured his knee in December - that was during a matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. And then during Sundays' playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, he took to the field in a big old bulky brace and he re-aggravated that injury. Now, many fans are criticizing Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for putting a game ahead of the health and career of their rookie quarterback.

So sports fans, we want you to tell us a story. Tell us about a time when you questioned a coach or a player's decision to stay in the game. The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, it's npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION. But joining us now, NPR correspondent Mike Pesca. He joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Mike, welcome back.


HEADLEE: All right. So let's start with basics. Who is RGIII and how important is he?

PESCA: Second question first: unbelievably important. And first question: an unbelievable player. Probably the most dynamic player in the National Football League. Won the Heisman Trophy as college football's outstanding player. He actually did have an ACL, anterior cruciate ligament, injury in college so this injury on the same ligament is not unknown. Came into the league as the second overall choice and presented a run-pass option that the NFL hasn't really seen in a long time. But when so much of his prowess comes from his ability to run the ball - in week 14, as you say - he was nicked up. In the last few weeks, it was clear that he simply wasn't the runner that he had been.

And in the game saw against Seattle in the playoffs, it became clear as the game went on that not only was he not a 100 percent, even on the series before he got injured, he was really dragging and many people on Twitter or, you know, talking to friends of theirs on the couch were saying what does Redskins coach Mike Shanahan - what is he thinking keeping him in here. And it all came to pass on a very horrific play. Eh, wasn't a horrific injury in terms of oh, like gasp. I can't look at it.

HEADLEE: I could watch it. I mean, I saw it a bunch of times.

PESCA: It was sad. It was - right. It was RGIII just lying on the turf - what was reeled as really bad turf, actually. Unable to even make an attempt to get to a snap. He was there like, you know, he was just wounded and sad. And then after the game, there were all - there was the press conference where Shanahan explained himself and the explanations just rang hallow to people who know football. Shanahan said I asked him, are you healthy? You ready to go? And he, RGIII, said some distinction between I'm hurt, I'm not injured. That really is just linguistic nothingness. It's the sort of thing you say to get back in the game and Shanahan put him back in the game against what the eyeball test would dictate and that's, I think, one of the reasons why people are really upset with Shanahan for hurting, yeah, the game's star.

HEADLEE: Well, then, what do you they'll like because, I mean, this, the Redskins franchise has invested millions in this guy. Why would they even take the chance that would injure his knee, even possibly in a way where he would be out of the game for a very long time, if not, forever?

PESCA: Yeah. Think of football as you play through pain, and the more pain you play through, usually the more glory you bestow upon yourself. Football is a lot like war and it's a lot about valor. You know, I don't think playing with injuries is a sad symptom of football. I think in many ways it is football.

And if you look at, let's take hall of famer Jack Youngblood. You know, there was one sentence, the sentence affixed to Jack Youngblood's name, played in the Super Bowl with a broken leg. He's like one of these historical figures. You know, William Henry Harrison died in 30 days. Jack Youngblood played with a broken leg. That's what we know about Jack Youngblood. And then there are so many stories where a player plays through pain, plays through injury and it's always presented as that's when his teammates knew they could trust him. That's when he gained esteem in the eyes of the fans and the players and said, this is just how football works, but you have to be a little bit smart about it and coaches have to know when players are really putting themselves at risk and, in this case, really putting the future, as you say, the future of the entire Redskins organization at risk.

HEADLEE: But isn't this a domino - I mean, there must have been a decision on many people's part, right? I mean, it wasn't just between Mike Shanahan and RG3. There had to be doctors who gave him the OK and said...

PESCA: You would think and you would hope, but that's not really the reality. During the game, the game broadcasters, Troy Aikman and John - Jack Buck. What's Buck's first name?

HEADLEE: Are you actually asking me? I don't know.


PESCA: Yeah. I'm trying to - Jack Buck was his dad. It'll come to me. They...

HEADLEE: Joe. It's Joe.

PESCA: Joe Buck. Right, right, right, Joe Buck. They presented a USA Today article that had revealed that in week 14, the team doctor for the Redskins, Dr. James Andrews - who just performed that surgery - did not get to evaluate RG3 before RG3 was put in the game. He just - RG3 walked around, avoided the doctor, didn't let the doctor look at him. And then the doctor came out and said, you know, to this reporter that he went back in the game without my go-ahead. Now, in subsequent weeks - 15, 16 or 17, rather - the doctor did approve him.

But, you know, there is - when you want to get back in the game, you'll lie to a doctor as a player. You'll just not allow yourself to submit to the doctor. Coaches possibly will not consult the doctor. And the thing in this case is most team doctors would never go public with that. But James Andrews is the most widely renowned orthopedist on the planet. He has a big practice. He doesn't need the Redskins, so he's able to say they didn't consult me properly. And that's the only reason we know that.

HEADLEE: OK. Our question for those sports fans out there listening is we want to know about a time when you questioned a coach or a player's decision to stay in the game. The number is 800-989-8255. And let's hear now from Pete in Denver, Colorado. Hi, Pete.

PETE: Hey, there. Yeah. You know, I was just shocked to see the deja vu with this situation. John Elway is, you know, holy in Colorado. And he could never really put together a season to win the Super Bowl without a running back. Denver needed a running back. They got Terrell Davis. And if you look at the statistics of those games, the performance was great with John Elway, but Terrell Davis is the reason Denver had two Super Bowl championships under John Elway. And his career was ended. Shanahan was a coach, and they just put him out on the field and they grinded him and grinded him. And I don't know to what extent they medicated him to throw him back out there. But those Super Bowls were career-ending for Terrell Davis so that John Elway could get the crown.

HEADLEE: Thank you very much. That's Pete in Denver, Colorado. I mean, I guess, Mike, this probably becomes more common when it's something like a playoff game or a Super Bowl, right?

PESCA: Yeah. But it's common, you know, among stars. We pay attention when Emmitt Smith comes - plays with a broken collarbone or when, you know, in that very Super Bowl, there was Terrell Davis with a screaming migraine and Shanahan telling him, just go back and play. We've got to use on a decoy on this play. A very similar situation as the caller, said.


PESCA: And, you know, Terrell Davis is put back in. He's seen as a hero. So the star players, we kind of notice it and note it. The guys further on down the line, who are just looking to keep their careers, they say it all the time. They'll say anything to get back in the game, because they really think they're going to be cut if they are seen as injury-prone, and they're probably right. And so this stuff goes on all the time.

HEADLEE: All right. But we got this email from Jerry in Woodside, New York. Jerry says this: I'm a Chelsea fan, was very concerned in the Champions League last year when David Luiz, a Brazilian center defender from my team, was forced to play through a clear injury. I was concerned because he's youngish and good. I didn't want this to hurt him long-term. However, my fears turned out to be for nothing. David Luiz came through, coming back after only a few weeks. Chelsea ended up winning the Champions League. Soccer has a reputation for being a wimpy sport in the U.S., but I've witnessed players getting stitches on the sideline many times only to run back on the field as soon as possible.

That's kind of the problem, Mike, is all the times when they've put them back in and it doesn't turn out be disastrous.

PESCA: Right, right. That's why, you know, Jack Youngblood, he played on the broken leg. It's usually seen as the ultimate sign of sacrifice and being a team player. And so, yes, if we were to be intellectually consistent, we, as sports fans, should say before it's clear that the guy gets injured, that he shouldn't be playing, or that coaches need to take more seriously talk of injuries.

We've gained some progress on the issue of head injuries. That we are taking more seriously, certainly not seriously enough. But there's at least this knowledge that we need to address head injuries a bit differently. But it always amuses me in a sad way that the maiming that is frequent in the sport of football, in - on other bodily parts seems to be - seems to have no purchase in that discussion of head injuries, you know?

We are concerned about concussions, as we should be. And then if you ask someone, well, what about, you know, a dislocated knee? What about a cracked vertebrae? Oh, yeah, well, you know, that's a different category. That's all about toughness and wanting to play and help your team. Well, I think maybe head injuries and horrific leg injuries might have a lot more in common than we're talking about.

HEADLEE: NPR correspondent Mike Pesca is with us, joining us from NPR's New York bureau. We're talking about when athletes are asked or demand to sacrifice their own body for the sake of a team. And the question for you out there, you sports fans, was: When have you ever questioned a coach or a player's decision to stay in the game? And this is Tom on the line from York, Pennsylvania. Hi, Tom.

TOM: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

HEADLEE: All right. So have you ever questioned a decision like that?

Well, I'm a college coach, and we have to face this...

Can I ask where?

TOM: I was just telling your interviewer that I'd prefer not to put the name of the school on the air if...

HEADLEE: Fair enough, fair enough.

TOM: ...you'll bear with me. I have a lot of students that listen to NPR, so I don't want to get into that. But...

PESCA: So it must be a good college.


TOM: Yeah, yeah. And I have a lot of really good players. I coach women. And we have to face these sort of questions constantly. And we have - we don't have quite the resources that the professional teams have, but we do have really excellent training staff. And we do have, you know, a policy about - we watch them and we send them to the trainers. We literally walk them to the trainers, because sometimes they'll just - the kids will blow it off. And we have to make these decisions constantly about, you know, are we hearing the whole picture? We have to make these assessments ourselves. And our - my personal golden rule is there's no single game worth, you know, worsening an injury or possibly jeopardizing this player's career for a long time. So that kind of make it a little more simple. There's just no game that's worth it...

PESCA: Yeah.

TOM: ...for any player, for anybody.

PESCA: And I've heard coaches use the rule of thumb, and tell me if you do: What if it were my son? What if it were my daughter? It may be different on the professional level, but is that a rule you ever consider?

TOM: No, no, I'd go further than that. I went through it with four sons. I coach four sons over the years, and I have young women. And it has nothing to do with whether they're a man or a woman. It's just concern for the individual, period.

HEADLEE: OK. Thanks. That's a...

TOM: And that's it. And as your guest was saying earlier, we've made a lot of progress on the head injuries. I mean, that is like...


TOM: ...that's it, period. Bang. You know, you get knocked down, you've got a lump on your head, you're done...

HEADLEE: Absolutely.

TOM: ...until they can put you through all the appropriate testing and things of that nature. And even then, that's protracted afterwards.

HEADLEE: OK. Thanks so much. That's Tom, calling from York, Pennsylvania. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And we're here with NPR correspondent Mike Pesca, talking about when you're supposed to suck it up and when you're supposed to stay on the sidelines. And you've been alluding to this, Mike, the difference between pro sports, where there's money at stake and where they're being paid quite a lot of money, and what's - he's at a college, where they're not.

PESCA: Right. Well, I mean, the impetus - coaches are always - and this is what - this is the responsibility that Mike Shanahan advocated in the minds of many, many coaches, many coaches at all levels, that they're the line of defense. They're the one who has to take, coach, I'm going in there no matter what, and has to evaluate it. When Shanahan said, that was good enough for me, that he said he was a little hurt but not injured, it can't be good enough for you.

And you want to talk about the college level. Just as we were talking about RG3, just as a part of the national discussion, and just as some people are saying, well, maybe we're gaining more credit, maybe we're making progress on the issue. Maybe we're being a little more sensible.

We had the national title game in college. And there we had the center on the Alabama team, Barrett Jones, kind of not disclosing what the nature of one of his knee or foot injuries was, being a little coy about it, saying, I'll play. I'll play. I'll play. And he did play, and he wasn't further injured in the game. But then afterwards, he came clean and he said it wasn't just a little sprain. It was what would be typically a season-ending injury for most players. And no one said - because everything worked out for Barrett Jones, and they won their championship. No one that I know of went back and said, he shouldn't have played, or he's only a college student, not getting paid. He's an amateur. How could they put him out there? So...

HEADLEE: It's a good question.

PESCA: Yes. And it's also a gray area, because there's Barrett Jones. They did win the championship. Who - Barrett Jones is happy that he played. Everyone's happy who roots for Alabama, and nothing happened.

HEADLEE: But it could have gone the other way. And our question to sport fans out there is: When have you ever questioned a coach or a player's decision to stay in the game? And we have Brian here, calling from Lincoln, California. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hey, guys. How are you doing?

HEADLEE: So when have you questioned a decision?

BRIAN: Well, you know, earlier, Mike, you've talked about this season. Now, we have Alex Smith out of San Francisco, the 49ers, who was having a banner year, career year. Statistically, he was, you know, through the roof, and he ended up going out with a concussion as, you know, football players do from time of time. And he ended up actually losing his job to the backup, Colin Kaepernick, because of this. And so as if it there wasn't already enough incentive for these guys to play injured, now there is a definite possibility that you could lose your starting job because of it.

PESCA: Yeah. Right.

HEADLEE: That's a good point. Thanks. That's Brian calling from Lincoln, California. And there's the dilemma. I mean, Mike, you said we're doing better on concussions, and yet, and yet he lost his job.

PESCA: Right, and he's a starting quarterback. He's not the third-stringer. He's not a guy just trying to make the team.

And, you know, in the San Francisco case, they didn't dispute that he had a concussion. Their Calvin Johnson is a star player, set a receiving record this year. He said he experienced a concussion. His coach disputed that throughout the year. So progress is maybe a word that we should write in pencil, not pen when it comes to the NFL.

HEADLEE: I think we should always use pencil when we're talking about the NFL. That's just my personal opinion. But then what do we do about this, Mike? I mean, how do you change that?

PESCA: Things change. Things do generally change. We have a better sensitivity, a little bit overtime. But I really think that, whereas, with the head injury issue, we're going to get better with concussions. We're - there's going to be legions of kids who were raised with concussion sensitivity. I just think that the NFL football, which really is the national pastime, is very much about embracing and playing through pain. And it's sometimes hard.

The thing RG3 was trying to say that it's - I'm hurt, but I'm not injured. I mean, that's a thing. Everyone has to - everyone who knows anything about football knows you have to conquer discomfort. And maybe if something causes you to wince, you shrug it off. That is part and parcel of football, very much tied up with what we love about football. It's very hard to recognize the real injuries that are threatening. I think there's may be only so much progress that can be made.

HEADLEE: NPR correspondent Mike Pesca, joining us from our New York bureau. Mike, thanks so much for being here.

PESCA: You're welcome.

HEADLEE: Wait. Before I let you go, very quickly...

PESCA: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...you have any playoff predictions?

PESCA: I think Seattle's a very good team. And I think whichever team - you ready - avoids injury, especially among their star players, will be good. But if I were to pick an upset, I'd go with Seattle, and then probably all the other home seeds so far.

HEADLEE: All right. We're going to hold you to those predictions. Thank you so much to Mike Pesca.

Tomorrow, we're going to talk about families who are confronting weight problems together and what problems that can cause. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.