Illustration by Ari Libenson
Whether it’s former one-handed Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher Jim Abbott or the 5’9” three-time National Basketball Association dunk Contest champion Nate Robinson, everyone loves to hear stories of athletes defying odds. Now former University of Central Florida star, and current linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, Shaquem Griffin, is making headlines. The combination of the ever-growing sports platform that is social media and the widely broadcasted National Football League (NFL) Scouting Combine gave the public a first look at the inspiring story of Shaquem Griffin.
Griffin was born with a rare birth defect known as amniotic band syndrome, which resulted in the fingers on his left hand being severely disfigured and never fully developing. This led to immense pain for Griffin. So painful in fact, that he tried to remove the fingers himself when he was five with a kitchen knife. Concerned, his mother decided to have his hand amputated.
Some fifteen years later, a late, under the radar invitation to the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine led Griffin to take the sports world by storm. With a 4.38 (second) 40-yard dash, he was all over social media for setting the record for the fastest 40-yard dash by any linebacker ever recorded by the NFL Scouting Combine. He proceeded to get through twenty repetitions of the bench press — with a prosthetic hand. An incredible story, yes, but could we be selling athletes like Shaquem Griffin short by focusing on their adversities and not on their actual athletic ability? Well, it’s complicated.
Every two years, I watch a little bit of the Olympics, mainly to get a chance to see the best of the best from all over the world. The moment that still stands out to me, however, was watching South African native, Oscar Pistorius, run in the 2012 Summer Olympics. I sat in awe as I watched a man with amputated legs race against some of the fastest men in the world. Yet this wasn’t just some feel-good story. People don’t get to the Olympics because they tug at the heartstrings. They get there because they’re talented and because they worked hard to get there. So when I was watching this man with carbon fiber blades from the kneecap down instead of legs, I had to believe he’d worked harder than any other Olympian there. I thought about how amazing it was that he was doing what he was doing without legs. Yet that is the problem, I couldn’t tell you which event he was running at the time, if he finished last, first, or somewhere in the middle. I didn’t learn the first thing about Oscar Pistorius the athlete, just about his story. It’s easy to argue that no one cares how he does in the race because it’s so impressive he’s there in the first place. But guess who does care? Oscar Pistorius — because he definitely wasn’t there to be a good story and leave. He was there to compete and win, same as every other athlete who shows up to a competition.
We analyze all the faults these athletes have, yet at what point can we recognize the athletes for their ability? It took 5’5” MLB second basemen Jose Altuve multiple batting titles and an MVP to be recognized on the same level as some of the best players in the game, and it still seems as though all anybody wants to talk about is his height.
In the same token, Shaquem Griffin isn’t good at football for someone with one hand; he is just good at football. Obviously, people don’t think about these athletes in spite of their adversities. In fact, I believe most of the commentary about them comes from a sense of awe and astonishment. These athletes are inspiring and they make people feel like they can do what they are told they can’t do, and that’s why it’s a tricky and complex topic.
We want to recognize the Shaquem Griffins of the world because they deserve recognition. Yet, we have to realize that these people are here for the same reason as the 6’3”, two-legged, two-handed prototypical jocks we are used to seeing: because they love the sport and they want to win. “Shaquem Griffin the story” is great, but Shaquem Griffin the athlete is great too, as is Jose Altuve, Oscar Pistorius, and so many others. Their stories may make them even greater athletes, but we can’t let their stories define their careers.