What I hope my children learn from Robert Griffin III

Some reflections after seeing Robert Griffin III play through a knee injury and obvious pain in yesterday’s playoff game between his team the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks…

I grew up in Texas, where football is by far the most popular sport, and like most boys in my neighborhood, I played football from an early age. We started playing football in our yards when we were five or six years old, then moved our games to the street when the yards became too confining. We even played tackle football in the street, though eventually became too big for that and fell back to two-hand touch.

As we grew older, some of us gave up the sport while others began playing in school, first at the junior high (“middle school” in today’s parlance) level, and then high school. I kept playing through my first two years of college (Stanford), though was a terrible athlete and never made it off the junior varsity team there. Just the same, I loved football and thought I would always enjoy the sport, at least as a spectator.

But then something happened. I cannot put my finger on the moment when I first realized this, but at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I started noticing a certain thuggishness creeping into the National Football League (“NFL”). This manifested as “headhunting,” or what were clearly deliberate attempts not just to tackle or block an opponent, but to injure him. I first remember seeing this in Jack Tatum from the Oakland Raiders, but the practice soon spread throughout the league. Soon enough, college kids got in on the act, starting with the University of Miami from what I could see.

As the headhunting took hold, my stomach turned. Injuries were always a risk in the game that I loved, but not deliberate injuries. Soon enough, my enjoyment of the game and tolerance for watching it plummeted.

My sons too found football at an early age, and soon enough were watching games on television and choosing and following their favorite teams when they weren’t wallowing in the mud with their neighborhood chums, just as I did. My oldest loves the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, and Stanford Cardinal; the youngest cheers for the Washington Redskins and Oregon Ducks.

At some point, I faced a moral dilemma, though: they both asked to play organized (tackle) football. With great reluctance and feelings of being a hypocrite, I told them, firmly, “No.” They howled in protest, arguing that I was being unfair. They pointed out that my parents had let me play. When I offered them rugby as an acceptable alternative, they howled even louder. “Rugby! You can get hurt playing that, too!”

I patiently spoke with them of the new research on brain injuries arising in football; of my theories that helmets and pads made football more dangerous, not less so; and most importantly, of how the game had evolved from what I once considered to be a true sport to what now appeared to be, especially at the professional level, a gladiatorial spectacle. They were neither persuaded nor consoled. We had a two-year battle over football, which finally subsided only when they realized that no amount of complaining would change my mind. They still get muddy, tear up their clothes, and come in bruised from playing touch or tackle with their friends, and they now seem to be at least mildly satisfied to leave it at that.

But beginning with the start of the current football season, I began to see the beginnings of positive change in football at the high school, college, and professional levels. After too many tragedies that appear to have repeated head injuries – and headhunting – at their roots, leagues, conferences, coaches, trainers, physicians, players, and parents seem to have gotten the message that the sport was at risk. And several high-profile college kids who seemed to be true sportsmen and gentlemen joined the NFL and excelled as rookies, among them Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

To take nothing away from Luck, who by all accounts is not just a spectacular player but tremendous young man, Robert Griffin III really impressed me. I saw in him pride without arrogance; respect for his family, team, and sponsoring institutions; and, an inspiring work ethic. His family has every reason to be proud of him.

But yesterday, Robert Griffin III did something really unwise: seriously injured and in pain, he refused to take himself out of the game, apparently misled his coach as to his condition, and took a reckless risk with his own health and future, as well as the future of his team. From what I saw, his team lost the game as a result.

Both of my boys watched the game with me, and as it progressed, I said to them what people must have been saying around the country who were seeing the game on television. “The kid’s hurt and should come out of the game.” Even the announcers noticed. And I am sure that all of us who watched must have wondered and worried about the same thing: did he do permanent damage to his knee by playing on?

I was still bothered by what I saw when I awoke this morning and worried for Robert Griffin’s future. Would he suffer in pain for years because of his actions, yesterday? Did he shorten his own career, perhaps dramatically? Would he ever play as well again? Both boys are fans of “RG III.” But I realized that this incident provided an opportunity for me to teach the boys a valuable lesson.

As Aristotle first taught us over 2,400 years ago, in matters of virtue we should strive for the golden mean – the middle ground, if you will, between excess and deficiency. Determination and courage are virtues, but excessive determination and courage are not. Excessive determination is stubbornness; excessive courage is recklessness.

Tonight I will sit down at dinner with the boys and talk about Aristotle and Robert Griffin III, and especially what I hope they will learn from watching Robert Griffin yesterday. We will talk about virtue and the golden mean, and I will use examples from my own life where I exceeded or fell short of the golden mean.

They already know Aristotle from their philosophy class, but I doubt they have considered that Aristotle had something to teach Robert Griffin III about football.

But no matter how our conversation goes and the sport is evolving, I still won’t let them play football–at least, not until they are much older and should be making these decisions for themselves. My offer of rugby stands, though.

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