Robert Griffin III played yesterday’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on what appeared to be one leg, prompting many in the media today to question RGIII’s health and whether Red Skins Head Coach Mike Shanahan really had Griffin’s safety as a primary concern in his quest to move on in the NFL playoffs. The larger question, of course, has to do with the fine line when an athlete should be pulled from a game — and who this decision ultimately falls upon?
To the untrained eye (meaning those of us who are not sports medicine physicians), it sure looked like Griffin should not have continued to play in the game yesterday as he hobbled around on one leg. Listening to Griffin’s post-game interview, he gave the mental toughness answers most of us would have expected — he wanted to play and felt his being in the game gave Washington the best chance to win the game. Similarly, Mike Shanahan offered predictable post-game comments that included remarks around Griffin’s mental toughness, and how he left the decision of whether to play Griffin up to the player and team doctors. Cynical fans might suggest this is rather convenient and protects the coach from any harsh criticism as he placed himself third in line in the decision-making process. Some might even wonder why Shanahan didn’t simply over-rule everyone and use common sense – in other words, make an executive decision and pull Griffin from the game?
Who Makes the Decision to Pull a Player?
While it is understandable that some coaches can miss concussions and inadvertently continue to play a player with a head injury (because head injuries typically cannot be “seen” like how other injuries can), it’s a lot more controversial when a coach allows a player to carry on when it’s clear to the world that he shouldn’t be playing. The diffusion of responsibility around injured players creates somewhat of a safety zone for elite coaches, making it easy to finger point toward the player and sports medicine personnel when criticism comes for playing an injured player.
While the allure of winning yesterday’s game in dramatic fashion was there (after all, most Disney movies are made of this stuff), the risks Griffin faced further exacerbating his injury (to the point of it possibly being career-ending) most likely should have been the deciding factor. Unfortunately in “pro” sports (which in my book include college athletics), coaches don’t usually worry too much about the long-term health of a player, as it’s “win now” and then deflect any future criticism by making comments about how football is a mans game.
It’s too bad there aren’t more sport psychologists on the field to help balance these kinds of player safety decisions in the heat of the battle. I say this as we know that most players are going to want to play (if for no other reason to appear strong, even if they know they should be pulled from the game), and coaches want to win and will often play injured players (remember, they make millions of dollars for winning). I think there is a strong and valid argument for another, objective, non-coach/player opinion to be added to the mix, one that looks to balance long-term safety against immediate short-term on-field success. Unfortunately, that opinion will never come from a player or coach.
Quick Tips for Coaches
Like most things in life, there aren’t any quick-fix answers to when a coach should pull a player, but what coaches should think about are the following:
- Most players are going to say they are healthy enough to continue playing – even if they can barely walk. Coaches must go beyond what a player says and use better judgment in these situations
- Player safety needs to be better matched against on-field winning. In today’s elite-levels of football (pro and college), players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before — leaving an injured player in a game could lead to a career-ending injury
- Develop protocols for how to decide on whether an injured player should continue before being thrown into one of these situations. In other words, talk with assistant coaches, players, trainers, and doctors about the decision-making criteria you use at the start of the season when emotions are not high (and the game isn’t on the line)
- When in doubt — when that voice inside your head tells you something doesn’t feel right – pull the player! No game is worth a serious injury.