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?

Quarterback Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins warms up before playing the Buffalo Bills.
Washignton's Robert Griffin III warms up before playing the Buffalo Bills during a preseason game at FedEx Field on Aug. 24, 2013 in Landover, Md.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s a widely held and probably comforting view that sports are driven by “transformative” athletes, a procession of unprecedented individual talents—Pelé, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods—that heroically drag their games to ever-escalating heights. Occasionally these players prompt physical transformations and rule changes, but usually their impact is more nebulous. Jordan never made anyone seriously consider raising the height of the hoop. He just played basketball better and more shrewdly than anyone else, and in doing so, he altered basketball’s cultural footprint, clearing the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, maybe even Andrew Wiggins.

Robert Griffin III, 23 years old with a twice-reconstructed right knee, is, we’re told, one of these transformative athletes. This offseason, Griffin has been the subject of two full-length books, Dave Sheinin’s RG3: The Promise and Ted Kluck’s Robert Griffin III: Athlete, Leader, Believer, and both frame Griffin as an epochal, superhuman talent. “Someday historians may look back at the Redskins’ second play from scrimmage in their win over the Saints and pinpoint it as the moment offensive football changed forever in the NFL,” writes Sheinin. Kluck’s explicitly faith-based book goes even further, offering up RG3 as a sort of Cartesian theological proof: “RG3 and football should remind us of who it is that we really worship. … There’s something in Robert’s game that suggests that God made him to do exactly this, exactly now.” Take that, Tim Tebow.

Griffin was also the focus of a recent hourlong ESPN special that documented his rehabilitation process, his family life, and his insatiable thirst for Gatorade. And in May, Washington fans unearthed Griffin’s wedding registry and showered him and his fiancée with gifts, the sort of desperate affection normally lavished on a coveted free agent or a star player feared to be on the verge of departure. If Sunday football is America’s secular religion, all of this hagiography and breathless devotion has made Griffin seem like some blessed apparition: precious, magical, fleeting. We love him, and because we love him, we can’t stop worrying about him.

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On Monday night, Griffin will embark on what’s likely to be the most scrutinized, parsed and reparsed, second-, third-, and fourth-guessed season in the history of American professional sports. Some of this has to do with his position as arguably the most popular player in the country’s most popular game. Mostly it is because of that right knee, a body part that’s become a microcosm for America’s mixed-up love affair with football.

As an athlete, marketing conduit, and general ambassador for the human race, Robert Griffin III leaves awfully little to be desired. A Texas high school football legend who was also a basketball star and an Olympic-caliber hurdler, Griffin passed on Stanford and Harvard to stay close to home at Baylor University, where he graduated with a 3.67 GPA, a degree in political science, and the 2011 Heisman Trophy. The following spring, Washington swung a blockbuster trade to draft Griffin second overall, after Andrew Luck. Before taking his first snap, the young quarterback had signed lucrative endorsement deals with Gatorade, Adidas, Subway, Nissan, and other corporate interests.  

Griffin did not disappoint any of his new employers. In his first season, he was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, leading the league in yards per passing attempt and yards per rushing attempt while setting a rookie record for quarterback rating. This was one of the most electrifying debut seasons in football history, one in which RG3 appeared to usher the sport into a new era athletically, aesthetically, and culturally.

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.”)

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.

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