The best thing that can be said about the Tua Tagovailoa concussion drama is that the league and the players union seem on the verge of taking the game to a safer place with their joint admission that they “anticipate changes to the [concussion] protocol” in the coming days.
But the process of how they’re getting there is clunky, at best. From the time Tagovailoa was slammed to the turf in Miami eight days ago, to being rag-dolled to the turf in Cincinnati Thursday night and stretchered off the field, what seemed obvious over the five-day period was made questionable by the adults in the room. And late Saturday, after reports of the NFL players union dismissing the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant (UNC), which is their right under the concussion protocol, the league and union admitted they had a fractured process.
“The NFL and the NFLPA agree that modifications to the Concussion Protocol are needed to enhance player safety,” Saturday’s joint statement said. “The NFLPA’s Mackey-White Health & Safety Committee and the NFL’s Head Neck and Spine Committee have already begun conversations around the use of the term ‘Gross Motor Instability’ and we anticipate changes to the protocol being made in the coming days based on what has been learned thus far in the review process.”
When I talked to NFL Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills Sunday morning, he stressed that no decisions had yet been made about changes to the concussion protocol. He made the point that it’s possible that when players stumble on the field after a play—as Tagovailoa did against Buffalo four days before he was concussed in Cincinnati—it’s not always because of head trauma. “Sometimes players stumble and it’s not coming from the brain,” Sills said. “Did he (Tagovailoa) stumble from a brain concern or something else?”
It’s plausible, of course. We’ve got to be cognizant that it’s possible—possible—that Tagovailoa might not have had head trauma the previous Sunday against Buffalo, when he was shoved by linebacker Matt Milano and his head slammed against the turf. Tagovailoa claims it was his back, not head, that hurt. And apparently the UNC and Dolphins team medical officer who examined him at the half agreed, because he returned to play that afternoon.
But there’s a problem with clearing a player to return to play after he: a) has his head slammed to the turf; b) demonstrates instability getting up; c) has to go to a knee to steady himself to avoid falling. First, did the medical officials see the back of Tagovailoa’s head slam into the turf? They should have, because they’re supposed to review visual evidence of the incident. And when the head hits the turf at great force, and it is followed by a player appearing punch-drunk and needing to go to the ground to avoid falling, that must be cause for a player to be removed from the game immediately.
Mike Florio reported Sunday night that the “gross motor instability” loophole is going to be removed from the concussion protocol. That is the best result from this ugly situation.
Not that other factors should come into play on a pure safety issue. But you’d be naïve to think the NFL isn’t concerned about its long-term talent pool. And think of parents of young athletes who saw Tagovailoa get knocked down, return to play, then get stretchered off the field four days later. What must they be thinking?
I asked my readers, particularly those with kids who might play football, how the situation affected them. This, from George Recine of Andover, Mass.: “I played four years of high school and four years of college football. I believe strongly in the good football has done for me and can do for my 9-year-old son. I want him to be able to play when the time comes. But my wife was watching the game with me Thursday night, and when Tua’s fingers locked in that grotesque position she turned to me and said, ‘And that’s why Charlie’s not playing football.’ What possible comeback could I have had?”
Multiply Recine by how many? Fifty thousand? More? Don’t dismiss those parents. They matter to the NFL.
The NFL says it’s serious about player health and head trauma. Now’s the time to prove it. Force a player to the bench when he suffers a major blow to the head and can’t stand or walk straight. In this case, that’s where the fix must start.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column