On February 19th, 2006, a family friend died of complications related to medications used to treat chronic back and knee pain. He was the kind of family friend I referred to as “Uncle Roger” because our bond was greater than blood relation.
Roger Stillwell was a defensive lineman who spent three years with the Chicago Bears. “His first back injury occurred in 1975, in his first preseason game as a rookie for the Bears… His bad luck followed him into the 1976 preseason, when he injured his left knee in the first exhibition game.” In 1977, he reinjured the same knee, badly, ending his career.
Last weekend, I screamed at the TV in frustration as Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III made an early 4th quarter exit from his first playoff game as a rookie with the same kind of repeat injury that finished Stillwell, albeit in the opposite knee.
History repeats itself. But it doesn’t have to.
Concussions are the injury topic du jour. The NFL has made a grand spectacle of reacting to recent high-profile, concussion-linked suicides. What I haven’t seen mentioned is that the NFL Players Association linked playing injuries to post-retirement emotional problems 22 years ago. This isn’t new territory; it’s just getting new press.
Whatever their motivation, the NFL has finally placed the decision to play following a head injury firmly in the hands of medical professionals. But I'm not satisfied. Uncle Roger's death cannot be in vain. What must follow is to do the same with all injuries.
In 1987, the Orlando Sentinel wrote an article on Stillwell, chronicling his battle with injury, questioning the NFL’s management of such situations, and providing a cautionary tale to athletes he described as “completely naïve”.
His story was again featured in a 1995 Baltimore Sun article titled “Is a Short NFL Career Worth One Lifetime of Disabilities?” Between tales of the crippled Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, the author tells of Stillwell’s need to have mechanized assistance getting out of bed or into the bathtub, and of his use of a cane, which I never saw him without.
And yet when Robert Griffin III experienced a Grade 1 sprain of his Lateral Collateral Ligament, an injury for which doctors recommend 3-8 weeks of immobilization, ice, and elevation before returning to play, he only sat out one game. He returned early despite the widely publicized reservations of Redskin’s orthopedist James Andrews. This decision resulted in an ACL tear with a typically 6-8 month recovery time, and risk of complications associated with re-injury of the same joint – including additional surgery and early onset arthritis.
Some blame head coach Mike Shanahan for allowing him to participate in the playoff game, but not Griffin. “I respect Coach Shanahan, but at the same time, you have to step up and be a man sometimes and there was no way I was coming out of the game.” This quote is telling. Athletes serve as our culture’s paragons of masculinity. Their stories are wrought with depictions of what we deem manly. For breaking these prescribed narratives, athletes are framed effeminate, titled “pansy” or another five-letter word starting with “p” and ending in “y”. For daring to sit out the same weekend to heal a case of elbow bursitis, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was told, by a fan base emboldened by the Internet, that he has no pride, he’s a quitter, he’s scared, and he should “go die”. (The Vikings, incidentally, were the team that delivered Roger Stillwell’s career ending injury).
But the psychology of a decision like Griffin’s goes beyond a fear of what people might think. Research indicates athlete’s minds are wired to be more present-focused than non-athletes. This means that they place a greater value on what can be accomplished now, than on future consequences. “Athletes show higher win orientation but also higher play orientation" meaning a greater chance of winning next year isn't motivation to not play today. We can't know these tendencies exist and still ask athletes to make decisions in their long term best interest. This is the psyche that brought RGIII to risk his career to limp ineffectively in a game clearly lost.
In no other industry is it standard to allow an employee’s return from workplace injuries without a doctor’s approval. That such concessions are made in sport is at best irresponsible and at worst, criminally negligent. League and team offices know that to leave such decisions in the hands of players and coaches is to encourage an early return to the field. They must own responsibility and take all injuries seriously, not just those to the head.