With five minutes remaining in the second quarter of the Dolphins’ game against the Bengals, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took a huge hit. The nation watched as the back of his head slammed against the turf, his arms shot up, and his fingers curled uncontrollably. It was a clear concussion to even the untrained eye. Dolphins fans watched as their promising young quarterback—Heisman winner in 2018 among other accolades from playing at Alabama and in his first year in the NFL—sustained an injury that would put him out for at least the next week, and most likely have lasting effects on his entire life.
The worst part about this injury, however, is that it never should have happened in the first place. The week before in the Dolphins-Bills game, Tagovailoa took a stumble after hitting his head on the ground. He took the hit, got up, and stumbled to the point where his teammates had to support him for a few seconds. He was sent to the locker room to be checked for a concussion but returned later in the game after supposedly clearing all protocols. While the injury was initially reported as head, the Dolphins changed the status to ankle and back injury and blamed his display of gross motor instability (his stumble after the hit) as a result of back pain instead of neurological dysfunction.
He played the second half of the Bills game and almost the entirety of the first half of the Bengals game before taking the second hit that took him out and caused major brain trauma, as seen in his “fencing response” in his arms and hands. If the first hit he took during the Bills game was taken more seriously by the NFL-hired doctors, he would not have played in the Bengals game, and would not have suffered the same effects if he had been given time to recover.
The doctor involved in clearing Tagovailoa during the Bills game has been fired, but that step was one that was taken too late. Once the Dolphins organization looked over the examination performed by the doctor, they found “multiple mistakes,” but they only double-checked it after the public backlash they received. The doctors—unaffiliated with teams, but hired by the NFL—are responsible for players’ safety, especially because players and coaches often want to push through injuries as fast as possible. They are the safety net between a safe football league and a dangerous one. Obviously, this failed.
However, this devastating injury is not an anomaly in the NFL. The league has consistently come up short when regarding issues with head injuries, from when CTE was first discovered in 2002 to Joe Burrow’s admission that he sometimes “doesn’t remember the game” he had just played in. While they are investigating the incident and seeing what changes they can make to their existing protocols, they are only following their usual pattern. They tend to ignore the issues until there is an extreme incident or massive public backlash, like Tagovailoa’s hit or the 2007 movie Concussion. While improving protocols will improve the game, the NFL must take the first step, rather than being reactionary and following in the footsteps of disasters.
As for Tua Tagovailoa, fans must only hope that he does not suffer too many repercussions from the two brain injuries he sustained in just four days. The Dolphins organization is pushing back on putting him on injured reserve—which would put him out of the game for at least four weeks—and he is technically eligible to be back to play the Vikings on October 16. Time will only tell, but it would be surprising if he returned so soon. Hopefully, he recovers quickly, and hopefully, the NFL learns from the mistakes that cost Tagovailoa his health.