American Football: Robert Griffin III falls foul of the macho culture infecting the NFL

Injury to promising Redskins quarterback even raises questions in the White House

Washington

For true connoisseurs of the legalised warfare known as the National Football League, this is the weekend to savour: the four divisional championship games and the start of the season's serious business – of determining the best team, and which great quarterback will make the play-offs his own.

The winner-take-all matchups bristle with intrigue: can 36-year-old Peyton Manning continue his comeback by leading the Broncos to victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Denver? Will the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers prevail over San Francisco and Colin Kaepernick, who has wrested amid much controversy the 49ers starting position from Alex Smith? And can Tom Brady orchestrate another New England Patriots win over their habitual cannon fodder, the Houston Texans? The most likely respective answers: yes, no and yes.

Brady, Rodgers and Manning are the three genuine elite quarterbacks in action today and tomorrow. But if Matt Ryan guides the Atlanta Falcons to victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and then goes all the way to a Super Bowl ring, he will stake a claim to join them. But don't write off the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.

But all the talk right now is about a quarterback who will not be in action. Last weekend the Washington Redskins lost to Seattle in the wildcard round, and Robert Griffin III, the rookie with the electric pace who has galvanised a venerable but struggling franchise, was forced out of the game with his right knee shot to pieces. It was a match, almost certainly, that he should never have been allowed to start.

Griffin's collapse and the double ligament surgery which followed it have – along with the latest twists in the Lance Armstrong morality play and the failure of Barry Bonds and other steroid suspects to win election to baseball's revered Hall of Fame – dominated the sports pages here this past week.

Forget Hillary Clinton's bloodclot and the fiscal cliff. In Washington, RGIII and the Redskins have been the real story. After Griffin's season ended in agony, questions were even asked at the White House daily briefing. In the event, President Obama's views were not disclosed. But they would have been interesting.

For the Griffin affair raises issues that go to the heart of America's most popular, but most dangerous and violent sport, and the macho culture that pervades it. In the NFL you play through pain. Only in the NFL, is the distinction drawn – as Mike Shanahan, the Redskins coach did afterwards – between a player being "hurt" and being "injured".

In October, Griffin suffered a concussion. It was diagnosed as mild, but the accumulating evidence that repeated concussions cause brain damage, and subsequent mental illness, even crime, was already cause enough for caution.

But a fortnight later he was back. Then he damaged his right knee. Even early in the Seattle game, when Washington jumped to a temporary 14-0 lead, he was visibly below par. By the end of the first quarter he was plainly hurt. But, faithful to his sport's warrior ethos, he told Shanahan he was OK. Bowing to that ethos Shanahan (perhaps against his better judgement) had no choice but to concur. So Griffin stayed in, and the knee crumpled.

On Wednesday he had surgery on both his anterior cruciate ligament his lateral collateral ligament. Apparently it went well. He should be fit for the start of the 2013 NFL season in September. But will he be the same player? Or will Griffin's speed and control, for which Washington surrendered years of top draft picks, be gone for good?

If the latter, then Redskins will have ruined their future for short term gain, and NFL will have lost one of its most thrilling new stars in decades. But such is football. One thing this weekend is sure. If any quarterback leaves the game, he will be carried on his shield.

NFL play-offs

Saturday

Denver v Baltimore 9.30pm GMT

San Fran 49ers v Green Bay 1am

Sunday

Atlanta v Seattle 6pm

New England v Houston 9.30pm

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