RG3 vs. Strasburg: Why athletes shouldn't decide

RG3 vs. Strasburg: Why athletes shouldn't decide
January 7, 2013, 9:45 am
Share This Post

As Washington wakes up this morning feeling the sting of another agonizing postseason loss, the debate immediately shifts to a star local athlete's injury and how his team handled the situation.

The image of Robert Griffin III's right leg giving out on the chewed-up turf at FedEx Field, bent in a manner it was not meant to bend, will haunt Redskins fans all winter, spring and summer. As will the decision to leave the rookie quarterback in yesterday's NFC Wild Card Game deep into the fourth quarter despite the obvious pain he was in after taking several hits to his already injured knee.

And in the moments after Griffin went down, straight through to the end of the Redskins' 24-14 loss to the Seahawks, it was all too easy to make comparisons to the star athlete from the local ballclub who was prevented by his team from taking the field for the postseason out of concerns he might re-injure his previously injured right elbow.

Let's make this clear right up front: There is no real comparison between RG3 and Stephen Strasburg. One was trying to play hurt and was allowed to continue playing by his team. The other was healthy and was shut down by his team for precautionary reasons.

Trying to suggest Mike Shanahan and Mike Rizzo faced the same decision is folly, because the situations were entirely different.

Well, entirely different except for one common theme: In each case, the athlete made it clear he did not want to stop competing, and in each case the athlete's coach and/or general manager had to decide whether to let him have the final say.

Shanahan, in the end, let Griffin have the final say. Rizzo and Davey Johnson did not let Strasburg have it.

And in that respect, the Nationals' top brass was right. Not because shutting down Strasburg was necessarily the correct decision. (Though the vast majority of observers, experts and fans in D.C. agreed with the shutdown, there's no way to know for sure what would have happened had Strasburg been allowed to continue.)

But because Rizzo and Johnson understood and followed through with one of the most important tenets of sports: Athletes shouldn't make medical decisions. Coaches and general managers should, based on the advice of doctors and trainers.

There isn't an athlete alive -- certainly not a professional one -- who will admit an injury is as severe as it truly is. This is the mindset of the athlete, ingrained in his mind from the day he first picks up a ball. You play through pain. You don't let your teammates down. You don't pull yourself out of a sporting event.

We glorify those who battle their way through an injury, elevating them to warrior-status and craft legends around their gutsy performances. And athletes buy into the notion that they can forever be immortalized for playing hurt, for doing whatever they had to do to help their team win.

Strasburg didn't want to cut his season short, especially when his surgically repaired elbow felt strong and his team needed him. The right-hander's forceful words following his Sept. 8 shutdown said it all: "I play the game to obviously be a good teammate and to win."

In Strasburg's mind, happily agreeing to a precautionary shutdown would have been the equivalent of abandoning his teammates during the middle of a pennant race.

Nobody, of course, held the shutdown against Strasburg. Because nobody believed he made the ultimate decision. Everybody understood he was merely following the orders of his manager and GM.

Which is exactly how it should be. Athletes are incapable of making rational decisions when it comes to their health. They always believe they're less injured than they really are, frequently withholding their pain from trainers and coaches and trying to battle their way through the discomfort until it becomes obvious to even the untrained eye something isn't right.

Coaches, managers and GMs may not always be 100 percent rational when they make decisions about their players' health -- there's always going to be an urge to try to push them slightly beyond their limits for the good of the team -- but they're far more likely to make a rational decision than the athletes themselves.

Rizzo and Johnson knew shutting down Strasburg might hurt the Nationals' chances of winning last season, but they also knew shutting him down was probably best for his long-term health and for the organization's long-term chances of success.

It didn't matter how much Strasburg pleaded with them to continue pitching into October. The men charged with making the Nationals' most important baseball decisions did exactly what is specified in their job descriptions.

Did Shanahan do the same yesterday? Based on his postgame comments -- he essentially said Griffin convinced him to stay in the game -- it certainly doesn't appear like it.

Shanahan violated one of the most important rules of coaching: Don't let an athlete make injury related decisions. Make that call yourself.

Nationals fans should be grateful Rizzo and Johnson lived up to their responsibilities last fall when they easily could have fallen into the same trap and let their star athlete decide for himself whether it was appropriate to stay on the field.