On Saturday, the NFL Players Association exercised its prerogative under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to fire the Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant involved in last Sunday’s decision to allow Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to return to action, despite demonstrating “gross motor instability” after his head struck the ground.
According to NFL Media, the union cited two specific factors in making the decision. First, the NFLPA pointed to the UNC’s “failure to understand his role.” Second, the NFLPA conclude that the UNC showed “hostility during the investigation process.”
Per the report, the Dolphins’ team physician and the UNC were interviewed on Friday.
The NFL and the NFLPA issued a joint statement on Saturday night acknowledging that, although the investigation regarding last week’s incident is ongoing, the league and union already anticipate changes to the concussion protocol, and that they are discussing the use of the key term “gross motor instability.”
Currently, the protocol authorizes the team physician, in consultation with the UNC, to allow a player who has displayed “gross motor instability” to return to play, if it’s determined that the instability did not have a neurological cause. How the doctors involved in Tua’s situation came to that conclusion continues to be the biggest unknown. Last Sunday, the league did not respond to that specific question. More recently, the league has declined to answer the question, citing the pending investigation.
The fact that the NFLPA concluded that the UNC failed to understand his role hints at a problem in the application of the current protocol. As a matter of basic logic and common sense, it likely means that the team physician believed Tua shouldn’t return and the UNC overruled the team doctor by declaring Tua to be fine, that the UNC believed Tua should not return but deferred to the team physician, or that the UNC had misgivings about Tua returning and simply kept them to himself.
Even if there was an error in the application of the current protocol, the language allowing a player with “gross motor instability” to return to play that same day must be examined and revised. No one who saw the video of the incident reasonably should have believed Tua would be permitted to return to the game, regardless of whatever tests he passed in the locker room. The instability obviously had a neurological cause (i.e., he didn’t trip over someone’s leg), and Tua should have been shut down for the balance of the day.
The fact that Tua supposedly was fine after the game and all week long, until suffering an indisputable head injury on Thursday night, doesn’t matter. The question is whether, in real time, the team doctor and the UNC should have stopped Tua from playing again that day, after he displayed gross motor instability. Whether he’s OK later is irrelevant to whether he possibly isn’t OK in the specific moment that the critical decision was made to allow a player who may have suffered one head injury to potentially suffer another one, and possibly to develop second impact syndrome and die.
Those are the stakes, as bluntly as they can be stated. Given that basic reality, there can be no outcome other than an acknowledgement that the system, whether due to doctor error or substandard drafting of the protocol or both, failed.