By Ryan Masters
It is widely believed that Ronnie Lott, Half of Fame safety of the Montana-era 49ers, had team doctors amputate his pinky so that he could finish an important game. In the versions I’ve heard, usually over beers and a conversation about how soft the game has become, the 49ers went on to win the game and then eventually the Super Bowl. Whatever guy tells me this usually follows the story with an incredibly broad, possibly inebriated platitude about men no longer being men.
In reality, Lott had his finger amputated after the 49ers’ 1985 season ended with an unceremonious 17-3 playoff loss against the New York Giants. More than that, Lott regretted his decision to have it cut off. His options for the crushed finger were to have surgery to heal the finger, which would have taken eight weeks, or cut it off and let it heal over just a few weeks. He chose the latter, more manly route. Looking at the resulting mangled stump, he got scared and sick and broke into cold sweats. Realizing that the game he loved cost him part of his body, he vowed later, “If I ever become a coach, I hope I never lose sight of the fact that players are people. They feel, they have emotions….We are losing the compassionate side of sports.” Not quite the story that is told at happy hour.
In his new book, RG3: The Promise, Dave Sheinin scrutinizes this NFL bravado through last season’s Rookie of the Year, Robert Griffin III, bearer of the most talked about injury since Peyton Manning’s Frankenstein neck was cut at and bolted up thrice during the 2011 season. The book frames RG3’s ascent and (this ‘Skins fan hopes) brief crash with a story of the pinkie promise (apologies to Mr. Lott) Griffin made with his mother that earned her consent to let him play: “If you get tackled, you quit football.” Griffin’s response is classic football lore: “Yes Mom . . . but they’ll have to catch me first.”
This framing does two things to the general feel of the book: 1) it establishes the feel-good, warm-brownie goo that is home-cooked sentimental goodness for any good inspirational sports story, and 2) it evokes a protective maternal presence into a story which is essentially about the failure of the NFL culture to protect its own people. Jacqueline Griffin, RG3’s mother, watched over her son, worried for him, made sure the masculine drive she saw in him and RG2, the boy’s father, wouldn’t lead to his eventually collapse. Sheinin seems to suggest throughout the book that there is no such presence in the NFL today, and that there should be.
The book adds to a growing chorus of voices that are concerned with player safety like never before. With the league’s recent 765 million dollar settlement with four ex-NFL players lingering in the early air of the new season, it is clear that your grandpa’s NFL is gone. The culture of broken noses under dirty helmets, twisted bones poking through athletic tape, and impromptu amputations has become increasingly alarming for sportswriters and fans. And for Sheinin, as for a lot of sports fans, it wasn’t just that Griffin’s potentially career-altering torn ACL could have been prevented. It was that such play-through-injury, drag-me-off-the-field mentalities seem to be the very cause of such pointless injuries.
Though to even assign blame, as has been the favorite game of virtually every Redskins podcast published in the off-season, becomes impossible when you’re talking about a culture, a collection of “masculine” ideas and values that have formed gradually around the sport and made it a sort of alternate moral universe. “To assign blame,” Sheinin writes, “is to make the mistake of thinking of football as normal, a realm where our regular societal mores and our notions of right and wrong apply—when in fact it is a singularly grotesque and twisted realm unlike any other, with the possible exception of the battlefield . . . Violence and pain aren’t just part of football—they are at the very heart of its ethos.” What makes the RGKnee saga so revealing of this curious ethos is that what people have assigned as negligence to the parties involved are precisely the things we’ve learned to praise about athletes: toughness, hard-work, and sacrifice of self for the sake of team. Sheinin does a good job of exploring the dynamics of football’s macho ethos through the apparently praiseworthy attitude of his primary subject.
RG3:The Promise is half light-hearted, motivational entertainment, featuring stories of RG3 practicing late into the night side-by-side with stories of him showing up to college parties in Superman socks, and half reflection on how the collective consciousness created within the monolithic, all-consuming NFL may just be destructive to humanity in a way that we’re only now becoming ready to admit. Because let’s be honest: you would rather talk about Ronnie Lott’s pinkie than about Junior Seau’s suicide. But both can be attributed to the same mindset, and that’s why books like Sheinin’s are important. He gives you a spoonful of sugar to help the message go down. Christians need to think intelligently about how leagues, especially leagues with a scope of influence as broad as the NFL’s, treat their athletes while striving to continually produce a viable, meaningful game.
It’s a tough line to toe, but toe we must, because here comes another season of bodies crashing into one another at high speeds, and you will feel giddy inside when an opposing player bears the brunt of it. Bears’ star wide-receiver Brandon Marshall recently called out Redskins’ safety Brandon Merriweather because of the reckless safety’s habit of head-hunting. Merriweather’s response? “I guess I’ve just got to take people’s knees out.” Which is awfully ironic of him to say, given the current situation of his quarterback and teammate.
But the fact that even players are now starting to expect clean play from hard-hitting safeties shows that the culture of the NFL has been radically transformed by its new emphasis on player safety. Just a few years ago media and fans destroyed Marshall’s teammate, Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler, for leaving a playoff game with a torn MCL. Now Merriweather’s failure to think about the safety of other players makes him look juvenile—more like a whiny child than like a tough guy. This is an indication of significant and positive change.
So maybe the question we should ask is this: are we celebrating the beauty of the sport at the expense of its players? It needn’t be, says Sheinin. Implicit in the stories he tells of RG3’s superhuman work ethic, his dynamic athleticism (he also dominated in track while at Baylor, and was a star basketball player in high school), and his dedication to his family, is the idea that the very sport that can draw out such awe-inspiring grace and energy and grit out of a human being can destroy that same human being a moment later. Sheinin does well to organize his book by juxtaposing the work and flashes of brilliance of the quarterback’s rookie season alongside invectives against the causes of his downfall. It seems as if the author crafted his book after the same pattern that RG3’s rookie season followed, which the writer sums up this way: “His rookie season began as a symbol of everything that is beautiful and alluring about the NFL—his dazzling performance at New Orleans on September 9 was arguably the greatest debut by a rookie quarterback in league history, and it practically demanded that no game with Robert Griffin III in it should ever be missed again—and he ended it four months later as a symbol of everything that is rotten about the NFL.” RG3 is the game’s beauty and the game’s rottenness, rolled into one player.
The first half of this new season has been spotty at best for RG3, health-wise. Because the read-option has been less effective this season, edge rushers are coming for him with less hesitation, and a lack of talent in the Skins’ receiving corps has left him waiting too long for those receivers to get open as the pass rush is closing in on him. The Denver Broncos hurried and hit Griffin until they eventually sent him out of the game holding his knee—his other knee, to the relief of fans. But more than that, there is a noticeable drop off from the explosiveness of his rookie season to the sometimes laboring runs of the first half of his post-surgery season. Those facts have many wondering if he’ll ever truly reach the pinnacle of what many thought would be a historic career.
While the NFL has made strides to protect the sort of athletic beauty it has the potential to create, stories like that of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins remind us that the NFL’s machismo ethos lingers in the locker room air like a post-game stink. I have confidence that the game will continue to clean itself up, but it may take a lot more books like Sheinin’s and a lot more injuries—or worse—to the RG3’s of the world before it happens.
Ryan Masters was an avid reader of literary essays and short stories, like those of David Foster Wallace and George Saunders, before he and his wife had their amazing yet high-maintenance little boy, Nehemiah, this summer. Now he picks up scraps of culture from Netflix, streaming highlights, and whatever fun, short pieces of writing he is willing to get rice cereal all over.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.