One franchise pillar is questionable. One is unharmed.
The individual circumstances of Griffin and Strasburg differ to the point of perhaps rendering the comparison irrelevant, save for one shared fact. Both decisions drew withering criticism and shined a spotlight on questions that have vexed professional sports teams for years: When is a player too hurt to play? Who should make the decision? How do you maximize players’ gifts while also protecting them?
Recent history offers few clear answers. In 2004, Curt Schilling pitched with the skin of his ankle sutured to a tendon and led the Boston Red Sox to a victory that staved off playoff elimination — and led ultimately to the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years.
In 2010, guard Brandon Roy appeared in a playoff game for the Portland TrailBlazers eight days after surgery, helped them to a victory — and was never again the same player.
In 2011, quarterback Jay Cutler stood on the sideline during the second half of the NFC championship game with a sprained knee ligament — and was savaged by many his own peers for not going back in.
When a borderline injury arises, no two circumstances are identical. The stakes of the game, the age and ability (and contract) of the player and the severity of the potential damage all play a factor.
Experts agree on one universal truth, which surfaced Sunday when Griffin, exercising a telling bit of sports vernacular, told Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan that he was “hurt” and not “injured.” Athletes will always choose to play, and should therefore be considered the most unreliable source to answer whether or not they should.
“The emotional need of wanting to play and being a star always overtakes making a good decision,” said Sharon Stoll, a sports ethics professor at the University of Idaho. “You’d like to think an athlete as intelligent as Robert Griffin III would be able to make that decision. But your humanness prevents you from making that decision. That’s why you need a community of medical authorities to step in and say, ‘No, you’re not [playing].’ The athletes themselves, they can’t do it. There’s too much emotional tie-in.”
Schilling experienced that emotion more acutely than most. After he injured his ankle at the outset of the 2004 postseason and then aggravated it early in the American League Championship Series, he assumed his postseason was over. Then physician Bill Morgan “presented the Frankenstein option,” Schilling said — an operation that would come to be known as the Schilling tendon procedure.