Photo: Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire
Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered two potential concussions within days of each other, inciting a fervent debate on the N.F.L.’s concussion protocols and how teams prioritize winning over player’s health.
Week 3: Tua Is Allowed Back In The Game
Tagovailoa got hit during the Fins’ Week 3 Sunday matchup against the Buffalo Bills. He went down after a hard tackle from Matt Milano, smacking his head on the ground as he landed. Tagovailoa stumbled to his feet before slumping back down. Struggling to his feet again, Tua wobbled down field before teammates steadied him on either side. Fans and teammates watched in horror. A concussion, or worse, was feared.
The University of Alabama alum was escorted off the field and Dolphins backup QB Teddy Bridgewater stepped in and stepped up to finish the second quarter. But following the halftime break, Tua was surprisingly cleared to play. Fans couldn’t believe their eyes. The Dolphins went on to win the game, the only team in the AFC with a 3-0 record.
Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel defended the team’s choice to put Tua back in the game, stating the team had followed NFL concussion protocols.
“I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I prematurely put someone out there and in harm’s way,” he said.
We’ll Save You The Google
Who clears NFL players after they’ve been injured?
Players are assessed by the team doctor and independent neurotrauma physician, who is hired by the team but not an employee of the organization. While the league has strict guidelines when it comes to assessing concussions, it is ultimately the team doctor’s decision if a player returns to the game.
The NFLPA quickly launched an investigation into why Tagovailoa was cleared to play. In the meantime, fans, concussion specialists and former players spoke out. Experts questioned the team’s decision knowing that repeated blows to the head can cause Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE, a progressive brain condition linked to memory loss, impulse control issues, violence and dementia.
ESPN’s Ian Rapoport later reported Tua had actually hurt his back in the first quarter Sunday. The second quarter-hit from Milano put the nail in Tua’s back spasm, which is why –according to Rapoport– he looked unsteady on his feet. The team stood by the report, but the “Tua actually hurt his back” explanation provoked critics even more. Looking at Tua, disoriented and wobbly on his feet, it was impossible to believe back pain was to blame.
Week 4: Tua Tagovailoa Gets A Concussion
The following Thursday, the Dolphins started Tua during their Thursday Night Football face-off against reigning AFC Champions, the Cincinnati Bengals. Journalists and concussion experts were already dubious of the Dolphin’s decision to start Tua, just days after the Bills game. Adding insult to injury, the Dolphins have an incredibly capable backup in Teddy Bridgewater who went 5-0 for the New Orleans Saints when playing for an injured Drew Brees in 2019. There seemed to be no logical reason to play Tua just four days after the Bills game.
During the second quarter Tua suffered another hard hit, this time from the Bengals’ defensive lineman Josh Tupou.
Fans and teammates watched as Tua writhed on the ground, his hands seemingly in a spasm at his face -an after affect of a concussion called “fencing response.” Team doctors lifted Tua onto a stretcher while rattled players from both teams looked on.
McDaniel was emotional the following day, confirming Tagovailoa had suffered a concussion. Tua was in good spirits, he said. Tua had even been released from the hospital and was cleared to fly home with the team.
Response To Tua Tagovailoa’s Concussion
Journalists like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith weren’t buying the Dolphins explanation that Tua had suffered a back injury against the Bills. They called for the team to be more transparent on the decisions that led to Tua having not one, but two head traumas within a short period of time.
Former players got vocal.
CTE experts like Chris Nowinski, Ph.D., CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, called the Dolphins’ handling of Tua’s injuries “a medical disaster” during an appearance on “The Dan LeBatard Show.”
In Case You’re Wondering…
What happens if you get two concussions in a short amount of time?
Two major head traumas in a relatively short amount of time, when the first hasn’t had time to properly heal, can cause Second Impact Syndrome. The condition can cause “rapid and severe brain swelling.”
The Miami Dolphins And The N.F.L. Respond
Saturday, the Dolphins announced the neurologist who cleared Tua to play during the Bills game had been dismissed. The same day the NFL announced it was reassessing its concussion protocols, modifications would be just days away.
Monday the Dolphins announced Tua, still under concussion protocols, would not play in the team’s Week 5 matchup against the New York Jets.
Pro Football Failed Tua Tagovailoa
While each N.F.L. team has its own doctor and each is required to have an unaffiliated neurologist on the sidelines of each game, the decision to put a player back in the game is ultimately the team doctor’s.
The Dolphins were quick to fire their independent neurologist, who will likely take the brunt of the blame for the handling of Tua’s initial head trauma, but the entire organization should rethink how it prioritizes player’s health. And the Dolphins’ assertion that Tua was being treated for ankle and back injuries during Week 3, not a concussion or head injury, doesn’t ring true. Tua was clearly in distress after the first hit from Matt Milano. Whether technically a concussion or not, the Dolphins should have started Bridgewater during Week 4. Tua was clearly in distress.
We love seeing the Dolphins shine this year and delight in seeing Tua silence critics who wrote him off after the hip injury that ended his college football career. But nothing is more important than the health of players. Winning at all costs just doesn’t cut it when a player’s life is on the line.