There was a football game Thursday night between the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins. The Bengals won. Tyreek Hill had a gazillion receiving yards. There were plenty of highlight-reel moments. But who cares? All the play calling and blocking and stats pale in comparison to the night’s main storyline.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa left the game on a stretcher after his head was violently slammed into the ground on a sack by Bengals defensive tackle Josh Tupou in the second quarter. Tagovailoa was immediately taken to a nearby hospital. The whole scene was a nightmare.
The Dolphins immediately classified it as a head and neck injury. But the appropriate word is concussion, or more specifically, a traumatic brain injury. In case the force of the hit and the still body wasn’t indication enough, replays showed Tagovailoa fingers sprayed, almost as if he were trying to contort them.
Immediately after this hit, Tua started what looks to be decorticate posturing - bad sign, concern for brain injury. Given his concern for TBI last week, this is not good pic.twitter.com/E9Qyyddxr4
— Dr. Cameron Ghassemi, DO (@camsghassemi) September 30, 2022
This unnatural reaction, called posturing, is one of the most terrifying watches in sports. It’s also of the most telling signs of a concussion. As sports medicine doctor Brian Sutterer explained, the “his fingers are rigid like that because of this continuous electrical signals being sent to those muscles as a result of that head trauma”.
The emotions and anger stemming from Thursday night’s concussion are compounded by the fact that Tagovailoa should not have even been on the active roster. Just four days ago, Tagovailoa absorbed a similar hit against Buffalo, when his head again slammed into the ground. This time he got up, though not without stumbling and wobbling and shaking his head, perhaps to clear “the cobwebs”.
— David J. Chao - ProFootballDoc (@ProFootballDoc) September 25, 2022
The Dolphins called this a reaggravated back injury even though Tagovailoa never reached for his back. He inexplicably reentered the game, supposedly cleared by the Dolphins team doctors and an “independent” neurologist.
As the short NFL week quickly sped by, critics of the NFL’s concussion protocol concerns about Tagovailoa playing Thursday. Chris Nowinski, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist tweeted this grave premonition before Thursday’s game.
“If Tua takes the field tonight, it’s a massive step back for concussion care in the NFL,” he said. ”If he has a second concussion that destroys his season or career, everyone involved will be sued & should lose their jobs, coaches included. We all saw it, even they must know this isn’t right.”
And then the hit came. The fingers contorted. The stretcher arrived.
The NFLPA has launched an investigation. It’s possible that there will be changes to the NFL’s concussion protocol. For example, they might get rid of the caveat that instability is a “no-go” symptom, meaning the player cannot play, unless the instability can be pegged to an orthopedic cause.
Even this verbiage in its current illustrates how the much emphasis the league and individual organizations place on being on the field at all costs. Why should a human with damaged bones or tendons even be on a football field, let alone one who might have suffered a brain injury?
What a sad reality how little the NFL does little to protect its players, the backbone of its brand. The NBA has started resting its stars and starters for periodic games in recent years. MLB, for all its issues, has trended toward limiting innings for its starting pitchers. While this may be due to analytics pointing to less effectiveness the third time through a batting order, less innings pitched is a net positive for arm health. The NFL, on the other hand, decided to add a 17th game because apparently the league needs more revenue streams.
Despite the concussion protocol and rules to supposedly make the game safer like defenseless receivers and personal fouls on quarterback hits, the injuries keep on coming. Incidents of ACL and MCL tears are on the rise and concussion rates have held steady – and those are just the reported concussions.
Part of the allure of professional football is watching humans performing feats their bodies weren’t built for, feats we mere mortals would dare to try. That’s up to the players to take that risk. Yes, they signed up to play football weighing the injuries risks against the benefits. But no one signed up to have some reckless football people gamble with their lifespans like the Dolphins have seemingly done with their starting quarterback. As former NFL player Emmanuel Acho put it, “the helmet protects the skull from a fracture, it doesn’t protect the brain from injury”.
The mass outrage stemming from Thursday night is rooted in the fact that Tagovailoa had his head twice violently slammed down four days apart. It’s a struggle to process how we can enjoy this sport without guilt, how a medical staff allowed this young man to take the field, how the league provides such little transparency on brain trauma to its players and fans. But the tough reality is had Tagovailoa not left the game on a stretcher, most of the NFL zeitgeist wouldn’t have given another thought to Tagovailoa’s brain and the possible impact of playing so soon after his “back” injury.
Thomas Jones, a former NFL running back, called on team trainers to find their moral compasses.
NFL players are warriors & are willing to sacrifice our minds, bodies & souls for this game. Especially when we are playing well & winning. But some of these trainers have to step in & say no. Especially with concussions. Because trust me when we retire NO ONE GIVES AF ABOUT US.
— Thomas Q. Jones (@thomasqjones) September 30, 2022
Not all team medical staffs are as seemingly negligent as the Dolphins in the case of Tagovailoa, but that doesn’t change the league’s bottom line of its players only being of value when they’re on the field.
Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel addressed the media following Miami’s loss to the Bengals and in one line demonstrated all the league’s ills when it comes to brain trauma messaging. McDaniel reported the “good news” that his quarterback “doesn’t have anything more serious than a concussion”. It is inconceivable that after a $765m settlement and cases of CTE in former players and general unknowns about brain trauma, that an NFL head coach would have the audacity to minimize any concussion, especially under Tagovailoa’s circumstances.