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A Horrific Football Injury and the Crisis of Liberalism in the United States

Another young sports phenom faces a crippling injury and Dave Zirin wants to know who, if anyone, is to blame.

Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize–winning liberal political columnist, wrote that he knows who is to blame for Washington Redskins superstar quarterback Robert Griffin III’s horrific knee injury. He has seen the culprit and it is us. Reaching for a cliché with more age than the jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Robinson writes, “If you are a football fan and are appalled by what happened Sunday and want to find someone to blame, look in the mirror.”

At first I shrugged off this analysis as a top columnist venturing out of his comfort zone to discuss a topic that had all of Washington buzzing, and falling flat. But Robinson’s analysis actually reveals more than the liberal lion intended. It may say little about how RGIII was hurt, but it says so much about the Washington consensus liberalism that Robinson so ably represents.

There was a time when progressives, as a point of principle, made an effort to side with the people against the tyrannical and corrupt. The best of Bob Herbert, Jimmy Breslin or Molly Ivins always makes clear that the fish rots from the head and that the Beltway wisdom that “you get the government you deserve” served only to shield those in positions of power. But times have changed. Now, if you criticize President Barack Obama, if you say that armed drones and kill-lists shouldn’t be part of US foreign policy, or that a negotiated austerity is nothing to cheer, or criticize anyone but Republicans, twenty-first-century liberals like Robinson see their role as blaming you for hobbling the president, weakening his hand and making the situation worse.

This shift of liberalism’s focus is seen so clearly in Robinson’s analysis of what happened to RGIII last Sunday. Robinson writes that the transcendent rookie was injured because “it is the fans—in the stands and in front of their television sets—who have made football our national sport. Risk and injury are not just a part of the game, they are at its heart.” This analysis might seem to make sense to some on the face of it, but it’s really just hot air that actually obscures the role that powerful people played in making RGIII’s injury an inevitability.

If Eugene Robinson would only turn his gaze away from all of us, he’d see that fault actually starts not in the stands but in the owner’s box with Redskins boss Dan Snyder. Snyder is a billionaire and despite years of terrible decisions, mediocre finishes and a franchise brand that’s racist as all hell, the Redskins are the third most valuable organization in the National Football League. Even though Snyder holds this reservoir of resources, the field on Sunday was in a condition that would shame a public high school. As Chris Chase ofUSA Today wrote, “FedEx Field’s turf was a dangerous embarrassment on Sunday. Before the game even started, there were bald patches between the hashmarks and sloppy turf near midfield. Once play began, conditions quickly got worse. Multiple Redskins slipped on the team’s first possession. When their feet slid, chunks of grass would fly up like after a golfer hitting a 9-iron…. Players didn’t need cleats, they needed work boots.”

The quality of the natural grass turf claimed not only RGIII but also Seahawks pass rushing specialist Chris Clemons, who tore his ACL and is now out of action indefinitely. The conditions at FedEx Field have been an issue for years, with Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson tearing every ligament in his knee last season on the same turf. The league should have long ago sanctioned Dan Snyder for putting players at risk. Now, his penny-pinching has jeopardized the face and future of the franchise. If nothing else, this nationally televised OSHA violation should have been front and center in Eugene Robinson’s column, but neither the field nor Snyder are even mentioned.

Then there is Coach Mike Shanahan. Robinson’s column is actually framed as a defense of Shanahan’s decision to keep RGIII in the game after a first-quarter injury made the already ailing quarterback a limping, ineffective mess. The column is actually titled, “Don’t blame Shanahan for leaving RGIII in the game.” Shanahan, in Robinson’s mind, was just enacting the will of the fans to see RGIII squeezed dry until he was twitching husk on the stadium’s torn-up turf. This is beyond garbage. I watched the game with people who bleed the team colors of burgundy and gold, and they were screaming at the television after the first quarter to take RGIII out of the game. They were suffering with every limp, every hobble and every agonizing step the quarterback took. They wanted him out of there not just because he was completely ineffective and the team has an able backup in Kirk Cousins. They knew that he is the future of this team and that future needed to be protected. They’ve also grown to love the rookie and didn’t want to see him in pain. The imperative to sit RGIII was obvious to everyone but Shanahan. Former Washington Wizards Etan Thomas, in a terrific column on the Post’s website called “Robert Griffin III: An Open Letter” describes the reaction of his 7-year-old super-fan son Malcolm who said, “If RGIII is hurt and playing, couldn’t he get hurt more? Look at his face daddy. He is in pain. Why is he still playing if he is in that much pain?” Shanahan froze and didn’t protect his player, costing his team the game and perhaps costing the franchise its star. After the game, the veteran coach was even worse, saying that he kept RGIII in the game because the 22-year-old demanded to keep playing. What a profile in courage. As sports columnist Tom Boswell wrote in the Post, “If ever a veteran coach needed to accept responsibility for the reins of a player, it was Shanahan over Griffin in this game. Yet he simply passed the buck to his player.”

Even worse, USA Today is reporting that Mike Shanahan has openly misrepresented what team orthopedist Dr. James Andrews said to him about RGIII’s knee. As they reported, “Andrews insisted he never cleared Griffin to return to a game in which Griffin initially injured his knee, even though coach Mike Shanahan again tried to lay the responsibility on him.” If this is true, then Mike Shanahan should never work in the NFL again. If it’s true, it’s also a horrific example of a person in authority abusing their power. Once again, this is something Eugene Robinson could have discussed. Instead, just as Shanahan passed the buck to RGIII, Robinson passed the buck onto us.

Yes, football is a game unsafe at any speed. Yes, it’s governed by a toxic macho ethos that makes injuries like we saw Sunday inevitable. But there are real flesh-and-blood people we can hold to account for what took place. There was a time when we could count on liberals with a public platform to be a part of this fight. That era is starting to look as outdated as calling a team the “Redskins” or as much past its prime as a certain 60-year-old coach. If there is going to be a real fight against power and privilege, not just in sports but in politics, it might be time to champion some new fighters.

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