"Greatness is not given," Robert Griffin III says in his national Gatorade spot. "Greatness is taken, when the weak and distracted are resting on their reputations."
What that means is anyone's guess. The football industry comes wrapped in so much epigrammatic tough-guy rhetoric that you never really stop to think whether any of it makes sense. (Why would the weak and distracted have greatness to lose in the first place? Did they steal it from the inert and bewildered?) But one area where the rhetoric actually matters, and where it is leading us astray, is in matters concerning a player's health.
Are you "hurt" or are you "injured"? It's an old distinction in the football world, and now it's being dusted off in the wake of RGIII's kneepocalypse. So what is the difference between being hurt and injured? Depends on whom you ask, but it seems to me that it's just about pain tolerance: How tough are you? We hear stories of guys playing with torn ACLs, broken ribs, separated shoulders, slipped discs, concussions. So are they hurt or are they injured? And perhaps more importantly: Why is it everyone's business?
Of course this is my own little bit of rhetoric. I know why it's everyone's business. There are point spreads at stake. The Vegas sports books would not survive without injury reports. They've made that clear to the owners. And the owners have listened. Go ahead and try to fight them on that one: no injury reports. Tell them it undermines the health of the athlete to put a timetable on his recovery. Tell them it violates patient confidentiality. Tell them it's unethical. They'll laugh in your face.
The health of an athlete belongs to everyone, it seems, but the athlete himself. It's a media event now. Michael Vick's head injuries get covered like a car chase. A cavalcade of former players and professional windbags questioned Jay Cutler's toughness after he sustained a knee injury in a playoff game in 2011. "Is he hurt or is he injured, Jaws? I think he's letting his team down." Think about that: Not only is your play being critiqued, but so is your health. Your health. Your ability to remain a functional, living being. Jay has sustained several diagnosed concussions since that experience, and part of me seriously wonders if he ever gave a thought to concealing his symptoms and hurrying back, lest he get ripped again by people sitting in heated studios.
But these are football actors speaking off the cuff about a sport they care about. Sometimes their words sail on them a little. Remember, it's only rhetoric. In an attempt to clarify matters, ESPN has employed an on-air athletic trainer to explain a player's injury and his expected rehab. Yet she hasn't treated the patient. She has no intimate knowledge of his injury. All she knows is that in the past, she has seen similarly worded, similar-seeming injuries respond a certain way. And among those injuries, she'd tell you, if pressed, no two are the same.
RGIII never had a chance to do the right thing in such an environment. He's a product of this culture, too, after all. When asked what he would have done if Mike Shanahan had pulled him from the game, he said: "I'd probably have been right back out there on the field. You respect authority and I respect coach Shanahan but at the same time you have to step up and be a man sometimes. There was no way I was coming out of the game."
It is ingrained in the athlete's mind. There is no way I'm coming out. If RGIII looks you in the eyes on the sideline and tells you he can go, after having endured a wobbly knee over the last month and won every game in the process, and after having put in one of the best rookie seasons in history and resurrecting an organization, all against the backdrop of a home playoff game, where everyone's adrenaline is going berserk—well, you'd have left him in the game, too.
The health of an athlete belongs to everyone but the athlete himself. It belongs to his team, his fans, the media who cover him; it belongs to the realm of myth. What's the difference between a leg broken in front of millions of people and a leg broken in an empty sandlot? Only the former gets valorized by NFL Films. It's the perception, real or not, that each game is of monumental importance that keeps these men sacrificing life and limb. Glory! Pride! Manhood! That's the brilliant NFL hype machine at work. It sells the product. It brings in money hand over fist.
The problem is that the product permanently injures those who play it. Their lives are shorter for having played it. But the funny thing is that the players don't give a shit. They'll play anyway because that's all they know.
So what moral obligation does the industry have? I say there is only one: health care for life for all vested NFL players. There are roughly 18,000 former players alive and breathing. It is feasible, considering the $9 billion dollars in revenue the league brings in every year, to provide health insurance for every one of them. As it stands now, players have five years of post-career health coverage: then they're on their own with a long list of pre-existing conditions. Many football-related ailments don't pop up until later. By then many of them are broke.
If it is true that football is our true national pastime, then we should protect it. That means protecting those who play, and yes, those who played. They do not disappear when they stop playing; they limp along. And every uninsured, drug-addicted, crippled, dementia-praecoxed former player who limps through his football-free world is a black eye on a league that is already up against the existential ropes. Finding a way to insure those who need it, like RGIII someday will, would be the PR boost that the league so desperately needs, with the additional virtue of being the good and ethical thing to do.
Then we could stop pointing fingers. We could stop telling lies about "safer football." We could allow the game to evolve in its own best interest instead of the best interest of the league's PR machine and litigation team. And we could enjoy the game of football again, knowing that the men who entertain us will be taken care of when their bodies are no longer healthy enough to hold our attention.
Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times. He is working on a book about life in the NFL, to be published by HarperCollins.