Can Robert Griffin III Save the NFL, or Will Pro Football Destroy Him?

The stadium scene.
Sept. 5 2013 11:05 AM

Can Robert Griffin III Save the NFL?

Or will pro football destroy the first megastar of the post-CTE age?

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And then Jan. 6 happened—fittingly, the last day of Christmas, and the day that Griffin’s transformative gifts collided with the intransigent brutality of his sport. That afternoon, RG3’s lateral collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments gave out during a playoff loss against the Seattle Seahawks. The knee had first been hurt a month earlier in a win over the Baltimore Ravens, and there had been a gathering, guilty inevitability to this final joint combustion. In the weeks that followed the initial knee injury, Griffin’s treatment by coach Mike Shanahan had been the subject of endless controversy. After the disastrous Seahawks game, Shanahan was widely and loudly criticized for playing fast and loose with his quarterback’s health, with accusations of negligence, dishonesty, and general malfeasance flying. (Shanahan will surely be the second-most scrutinized employee on Washington’s payroll this season.)

The only thing to emerge totally unscathed from the events of Jan. 6 was Griffin’s reputation. RG3, everyone agreed, just wanted to play. And that’s ultimately the problem. The queasy precariousness of Griffin’s position has less to do with his particular injury history than with the fact that he plays football for a living. As the new NFL season begins, there’s a creeping understanding that the very arena that showcases his tremendous physical and mental gifts is fundamentally dependent upon the destruction of the same.

Griffin’s entire football career has been an exercise in negotiating this paradox. He first injured his right knee while a sophomore at Baylor, missing nearly the entire 2009 season with a torn ACL; upon his return, his recovery was held up as further evidence of his indomitable work ethic. In November 2011, Griffin suffered “concussion symptoms” after being hit in the head while sliding at the end of a scramble against Texas Tech, and stories circulated that the Baylor training staff hid his helmet to prevent him from re-entering the game. This perverse, slapstick runaround received its linguistic equivalent less than a year later, when a remarkably similar play in a game against the Atlanta Falcons resulted in a head injury that Griffin himself refused to call a concussion. (Shanahan was only slightly more forthright, opting for the dubious diagnosis of a “mild concussion.”)

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Griffin is the first megastar of the post-CTE age. While the NFL recently settled a concussion-related class-action lawsuit for $765 million, concerns over the sport’s safety have never been higher, and this intensity should only increase with the debut of Frontline’s League of Denial documentary this October. The conversation around RG3’s knee is not quite as fraught as the one we’re having about players’ brains, but it’s a symptom of the same fundamental problem, and when the expectations of a sport are thrust onto a player at a moment when that sport seems completely unsure of what it expects from itself—well, one wonders how much symbolic burden one body can take, however messianic that body might be.

When RG3 returns on Monday night, all eyes will be on him: the eyes of a football-mad D.C. populace who see him as savior for a team that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the first Bush presidency, the eyes of a league that recognizes him as a once-in-a-generation commercial commodity, the eyes of football fans hungry for a player to save a sport increasingly torn against itself. RG3 is the balky hinge where a culture of obstinate “toughness” meets one of learned skepticism, where the mythologies of tradition are forcibly reconciled with the uncertainties of progress. (And speaking of tradition, it seems inevitable that Griffin’s impossibly high popularity will suffer in one direction or another when he’s finally forced to opine on his team's vile nickname, as seems increasingly inevitable.)

And so we’ll sit on couches and in the stands and read that right knee like a groundhog’s shadow, shouting our consternation every time Mike Shanahan calls for the zone read or every time he doesn’t, and nodding our approval every time Robert Griffin III tucks himself into a slide, or every time he doesn’t. And when the day arrives that RG3 finally stops playing football, whether it’s many years from now or quite a bit sooner, we’ll almost certainly view both his career and his sport differently than we do today. The tricky part about transformative athletes is that sometimes they actually do transform things, just not in the ways that we’re all expecting, or think that we want to see.

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.