There’s a two-word answer to anyone who tries to kid you on that the NFL are doing everything they can to protect players suffering concussion: Tua Tagovailoa.
The Miami Dolphins quarterback is in concussion protocol again this week after an incident in the 26-20 loss to Green Bay Packers on Sunday. It is the third time this season he has been monitored following collisions, and it is high time he – and others like him – were taken out of the firing line to properly assess the impact on his health.
Back in September a big hit against the Buffalo Bills left Tagovailoa unable to keep his feet under him as he attempted to run back to the line of scrimmage. Having been initially taken away for tests, he was somehow allowed to return to the field.
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While the NFL’s Game Day Concussion Diagnosis and Management Protocol was followed in that case, the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant who assessed the quarterback and allowed him to resume play was later fired. It was the first in a series of occurrences which portrayed the game in a terrible light. This is, after all, a sport around which the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy has become a significant concern.
The sacking of the UNC just happened to come following another distressing scene involving Tagovailoa. Back out on the field just four days after that Bills game for the Dolphins’ clash with Cincinnati Bengals in Week 4’s Thursday Night Football, Tua was flung to the ground by defensive tackle Josh Tupou in the second quarter, leaving him prone and in the fencing response position.
After being taken from the field, the 24-year-old missed the remainder of the game and two further weeks of action before being cleared to play against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 7.
The problem here is the disconnect between what is clear and what is definitive. It might be clear to you and I that Tagovailoa should be given an enforced layoff of significantly longer than a few weeks – or a few minutes as happened against the Bills – but the only way of proving for a fact that CTE exists in a person is to examine brain tissue after they have died.
A 2017 study of deceased former NFL players deemed that 110 of 111 brains examined showed signs of CTE. Again, there can be no proof under current testing as to whether a single one of the current NFL stars – Tagovailoa included – is suffering from CTE but, given the overwhelming evidence, the league needs to start acting as though every last one is affected and work back from there rather than the other way around.
The latest concern for Tagavailoa comes after being tackled by Packers linebacker Kingsley Enagbare, which led to him landing on his back and his head bouncing off the turf. That happened late in the second quarter of the Christmas Day contest, and while Tagovailoa continued on for the remainder of the game he threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter alone – a very remarkable stat for a QB who had thrown only five in 12 games beforehand.
Only when he met team doctors on Monday did Tagovailoa report experiencing symptoms, suggesting another failure in the administration of the Game Day Protocol. A player with a recent history of concussion just being allowed to continue in a game after his head has been bounced on the floor is at the very least dangerous and at worst is playing fast and loose with his very well-being.
The cases of the likes of Aaron Hernandez, Ray Easterling and John Mackey show that the price of playing American football with little protection from the authorities can be deadly. So the question is how many occurrences of concussion is too many before players are taken right out of the firing line and given every test possible over a period of months – rather than minutes – to gain a better picture of what’s going on inside their heads?
What the NFL deems appropriate for Tua Tagovailoa could make or break the game’s image in the court of medical opinion.