January 8, 2013
Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin III (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

USA Today NFL editor Kevin Manahan found something screwy in the comments of Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan following the team’s Dec. 9 game against the Baltimore Ravens. That’s the contest in which quarterback Robert Griffin III injured his right knee in a collision with Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. After sitting out a play, Griffin headed back into the game for another four plays.

Shanahan told reporters the next day that he’d gotten the approval of Dr. James Andrews, who was present at the game.

Huh, thought Manahan. How could Shanahan have consulted with Andrews on Griffin’s knee over the course of a single play? Manahan consulted with reporter Robert Klemko. “We spoke and I said to him, ‘Let’s find out what the deal is going forward. How did they make the decision to put him back in the game?’ “

The story hinged on Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon who is the go-to guy for the knee and joint injuries of big-time athletes. To get a comment from Andrews, USA Today’s Klemko initially tried going through the front door — the Redskins’ front office, that is. Didn’t work, of course. Then came phone calls to Andrews’s various facilities. Again, nothing.

What Manahan terms “manna from heaven” then fell from the sky. A press release landed in his inbox, advertising a book on sports injuries and their prevention — a book authored by James Andrews. An opening! Klemko thereupon set about arranging an interview about the book with the publisher. Even that took some doing, says Manahan. But it worked.

Andrews opened up, telling USA Today in a story that went online this weekend that he’d never cleared the rookie phenom to return to action:

Andrews, however, told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday that he never cleared Griffin to go back into the game, because he never even examined him.

“(Griffin) didn’t even let us look at him,” Andrews said. “He came off the field, walked through the sidelines, circled back through the players and took off back to the field. It wasn’t our opinion.

“We didn’t even get to touch him or talk to him. Scared the hell out of me.”

And in a quote that nicely framed the context for Sunday’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Andrews told USA Today for its pregame piece:

“I’m the one that shut him down that day, finally,” Andrews said. “I’ve been a nervous wreck letting him come back as quick as he has. He’s doing a lot better this week, but he’s still recovering and I’m holding my breath because of it.”

Griffin aggravated his injury early against the Seahawks, but he kept playing — until he re-injured himself in a stomach-turning moment late in the game. The Washington Post has reported that the quarterback “has suffered possible partial tears of his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments.” Andrews’s case of the nerves was well-grounded.

That USA Today had to break into investigative mode to get the doctor’s take on Griffin speaks to the media’s near-helplessness when it comes to injuries in the NFL. When John Boehner or President Obama holds forth on the health of our economy and the importance of this or that tax policy, reporters have almost too many resources and experts to reach independent conclusions about the prescriptions.

As for knee twists in the NFL, good luck. “The fact is with these injuries, we don’t have the ability to have him examined by an independent” expert, says Vince Doria, the senior vice president of news at ESPN. “We’re left in the hands of the individual, the medical team, and the team itself to give us their take on things.” The primary vehicle for official information is the injury report, which lists the players along with their ailments, practice status and the likelihood that they’ll play in the upcoming game.

It’s a manipulable document. “There are many teams that typically list as questionable players that may or not be questionable,” says Doria. “There’s always been some maneuvering on the injury list. The reality of it is pretty much left to your own devices as a reporter.”

And the own devices of a Redskins reporter don’t often match those of Coach Shanahan. “He’s developed a reputation over the years as being as transparent as most CIA operatives about injuries on his team,” says Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise. “He and [New England Patriots Coach] Bill Belichick are notoriously tight-lipped about what’s going on with the medical health of their team. Fans hate this, and I’m sure bookies hate this. Sadly enough, they’re the two highest-paid coaches in North American sports.”
Jason Reid, a Washington Post sports columnist, puts a different spin on the matter, noting that Shanahan is more skilled than his counterparts at “putting injury information out at just the bare minimum” required to comply with NFL rules.

Nor will the labor of extracting medical information from NFL teams ease up after this incident. Andrews, for starters, has backpedaled a touch since those candid remarks to USA Today, signaling that he erred in disclosing information. And NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells, representing the forces of ignorance and obfuscation, scolded Andrews in a radio appearance: “First of all, is he the team spokesman? He’s not the team spokesman.”

Journalism 101 teaches that the best place to seek reliable information is primary sources — in this case, Robert Griffin III himself. Just so happens that the fundamentals don’t work here. Griffin, after all, has proven a pitiful source of information about his condition. It was he, after all, who stayed on the field based on a flimsy distinction between playing hurt and playing injured. So brainwashed is he by NFL machobabble that he issued this tweet: “Many may question, criticize & think they have all the right answers. But few have been in the line of fire in battle.”

Catching Griffin in a candid moment ain’t happening, either. Wise says that he recently posed a question to Griffin at a press availability about the Redskins’ controversial — offensive, that is — team name. The reporter later discovered that Griffin wasn’t happy about the question. Wise says he would have been happy to have posed the question to Griffin in a more private setting, if only Griffin were available to do such a thing. He’s not, says Wise, contending that on an average week Griffin is free for Redskins reporters for 20 minutes, a number confirmed by team spokesperson Tony Wyllie. (The quarterback, however, gives another 10 minutes to out-of-town NFL reporters). “They’ve turned RGIII at 22 years old into Michael Jordan at 35,” says Wise. “You can’t build a relationship with the best player on the team. … He wouldn’t even get to a point where he would trust you to tell you what is going on with him.”

The next addition to Griffin’s medical file is accruing today in Pensacola, Fla., where he’s undergoing an examination by Andrews. Though the team has promised an update on the situation, Shanahan isn’t scheduled to face the press until March, according to Wyllie. That’s standard for NFL teams, he notes.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.