What Redskins’ play calls after RG3’s injury teach us about workplace ethics

by Mike Maslanka

Anyone watch the Washington Redskins playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks? I am a Redskins fan, so I was naturally concerned about the health of Robert Griffin III, the phenom rookie quarterback, former Baylor standout, winner of the Heisman trophy, and all-around nice guy. Four weeks earlier, he had injured his knee in a game against the Ravens. (He also injured the same knee while playing college ball in 2009.)

Coming into the game, RG3 (as he is known) was wearing a brace. News reports from USA Today quoted the team physician as saying he was a “nervous wreck” letting RG3 play that Sunday night. And then came a sad episode that could end a young man’s career and is made all the sadder because it was avoidable if the boss had made a decision motivated by ethical conduct, not an ostrich-like attitude of self-delusion; a decision that could be made only by a boss, not an employee like RG3, no matter how well-paid; a decision that looked out for the needs of a human being as well as the organization.

First and 10, let’s do it again

It’s the first quarter. RG3 falls awkwardly while throwing a pass. Anyone can tell he is hurt. He starts to favor the knee. He is unable to run with the exciting, world-class speed that earned him the Heisman. No more quick pivots leaving the defense wondering what is going on. He plays on, finally collapsing in the fourth quarter.

Mike Shanahan is the coach, the boss. His excuse for not pulling RG3 from the game? RG3 fed him the tired old line even young, smart players use: “Give me the chance to win this football game because I guarantee I’m not injured.” News outlets later report that RG3 may have possible tears of his ACL and LCI.

Assistant coaches stay quiet

Bad situations often teach us good lessons. Here are some.

Winning isn’t everything. People who think that fill the penitentiaries. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.” That line wasn’t drawn by the Redskins. And we aren’t dealing with a junior coach. We’re dealing with a two-time Super Bowl winner. But age doesn’t equal wisdom.

If one junior coach had said something, had been empowered to do so, maybe RG3 would have been fine. But no. Remember: No matter how experienced, we all make mistakes, and subordinates must be empowered to speak up. Failing to inculcate this culture into any organization is a failure of leadership.

And speaking of leadership, let’s look at Shanahan’s reason for leaving RG3 in the game: He said he was OK. What?! These decisions are for the coach to make, not the player. Same in our world: Management decisions, while sometimes hard, are made by management, not the employee. I sometimes see this when a manager asks an employee who has been harassed, “What do you want us to do?” Or I sometimes notice it when a manager leaves work at 7:00 p.m., sees an overtime-eligible employee who looks like she is hunkering down for the night, yet blindly accepts the time card showing 40 hours worked that week. Dereliction of duty.

I hope Shanahan didn’t leave RG3 in the game because he thought that doing so improved his chances of winning. No game is that important. No case is worth forfeiting your good name.

Live to play another day

Want to watch a great movie on ethics? Check out Hoosiers. Gene Hackman plays a washed-up coach who is now coaching a high-school team with a shot at the playoffs. One of his players reinjures himself in a crucial game. The team doctor says the young man needs to be pulled. Hackman, his voice rising in anger, says something to the effect of, “Are you crazy? Patch him up; get him back in the game.”

Hackman, a great actor, then stops. He lets you see the wheels turning in his character’s mind. He looks at the player, who wants to stay in the game, and quietly tells him to go to the bench.

Not a one of us is above making a bad decision—or even an unethical one. No one, including yours truly. But our measure isn’t taken by the decision. It is taken by whether we learn from bad decisions. Ours or another’s. The big lesson here: When in doubt, tell the player to hit the showers. Play another day.

You can check out Texas Employment Law Letter editor Mike Maslanka’s video blog by typing in “Mike Maslanka@Your Desk” on Google and his written blog by going to www.texaslawyer.typepad.com/work_matters.

About Texas Employment Law Letter:
Excerpted from Texas Employment Law Letter and written by attorneys at the law firms of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP, FisherBroyles, LLP, and Monty & Ramirez LLP. TEXAS EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Texas employment law. Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice. The State Bar of Texas does designate attorneys as board certified in labor law. Contact attorneys at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP, FisherBroyles, LLP, or Monty & Ramirez LLP.
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10 COMMENTS

1 Lourdes Uranday
10:26:48, 11/01/13

Great article and good example of the daily decisions required by management! As H.R. professionals we must continue to be diligent in our recommendations and support of our business partners. Our position is difficult when executives demand unethical choices.
Thank you.

2 Gloria Allen
10:31:11, 11/01/13

Excellent article – I was wondering how this was going to tie in to HR – (I was just upset that RGIII got hurt) – But I see your point – Thank you

3 Brenda Lister
11:26:01, 11/01/13

You hit the nail squarely on the head with this article. What happened to RGIII on that playing field was nothing short of dereliction of duty. All frontline managers should take a lesson from that and ask: “When it’s the right time to do the right thing, will I go against the tide and make the call?” But, like most bad decisions, this one did not start on the field in the game. Every organization has a culture and Shanahan’s decision was influenced by the culture of an organization that year after year has taken steps that reflect “winning is the only thing” orientation. RGIII should have been rested after the Baltimore game. At the very least, knowing the talented rookie was injured with a potentially sidelining injury, why not ensure that the playing field was in good condition. It might have meant spending a little extra money after the concert that was held there a day or two before, to resurface the field in an effort to protect your prized quarterback. Instead, the lack of proactive concern was just one of several decisions that put a gifted young man, who above all wants to prove himself as ready to lead his team to the first of many championships, in jeopardy of being permanently prevented from doing so. I hope this whole episode will be presented as a business case study for leadership development.

I am a Cowboys fan and we have our own case studies, but I hope if we ever have the gift that a quarterback of RGIII’s calibre provides, we will learn from this and know how to take care of him, for decency’s sake.

4 Sharon Storer
11:45:44, 11/01/13

Great article–I’m sorry that RG3 was injured but glad that the Seahawks won.

GO SEAHAWKS!!!!!

5 Janet Hopf
15:39:39, 11/01/13

If Shanahan had taken Griffing out agains his and the physician’s words, wouldn’t he have been guilty of “regarding him as disabled” under the ADA? I understand you’re using an event to make a point. So am I–sometimes the law prevents us from using our judgment.

6 mike
10:40:51, 12/01/13

Janet,
Thanks for reading my post. I think that the RAD claim contemplates an employer who believes that an employee is substantially limited in a major life function. I do not think RG3′s condition at the game would qualify. But I do agree with you that the law often times compels us to ignore the obvious. Best, Mike

7 mike
10:42:24, 12/01/13

Brenda,
Well said. I see that RG3 underwent surgery and may or may not be able to start in the Fall. Best, Mike

8 mike
11:27:17, 13/01/13

In Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Judy Battista writes, in “Questions of Strategy As Griffin Has Surgery”, that RG3′s surgery puts his availability in doubt for next season and “also casts into question whether his dynamic style of play can,or should be continued when he returns.” The Redskins, according to the piece, have been tight lipped since the injury. Did the coach just have a brain freeze? Hard to believe.

9 Bill Shields
09:29:10, 14/01/13

There’s no ADA disabled problem because Griffin was unable to meet the requirements of the job unless the NFL was going to provide the unreasonable accomodation of forbidding the Seahawks from tackling him.
As for “I hope Shanahan didn’t leave RG3 in the game because he thought that doing so improved his chances of winning,” of course he did! The only other possible reason is that Shanahan didn’t want to hurt Griffin’s feelings – something that coaches, including Shanahan, do all the time when players are performing poorly.
I only hope that Shanahan’s actions didn’t shorten or end the career of a player with Griffin’s outstanding potential.

10 mike
21:19:04, 14/01/13

Bill,
Thanks for your thoughts. There is one other explanation. He had a brain freeze. Just like the second base player who fields grounder after grounder, and then boots a simple one. It happens, no matter how good or experienced. And, he had put the backup in before with good results. Like I wrote, I hope it is not the other. Best, Mike

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