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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.