Here’s a fact we all know: football is a dangerous sport. On top of that, the National Football League (NFL) doesn’t have the best track record with handling injuries. They have been known to neglect injuries, from clearing players to return before they are completely healthy to lying about the severity of injuries. The most recent issue to befall the NFL regards their concussion protocol, and it is well warranted. It is past time for the NFL to make a change in order to protect its players.
On Sept. 25, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was sacked by Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano, hitting his head on the turf. When Tagovailoa stood up after the sack, he stumbled and his teammates had to aid him in getting back up. Tagovailoa exited the game, only to come back to finish in the fourth quarter. In the postgame interview, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel claimed that Tagovailoa suffered a back injury, not a head injury, then telling reporters that Tagovailoa passed the NFL’s concussion protocol, which was questioned by many.
Less than a week later, in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tagovailoa was once again knocked to the turf. His arms went rigid and his fingers curled in what is referred to as a “fencing response,” a sign of potential brain trauma. Tagovailoa was transported to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and ruled out with a head injury.
Many fellow football players, sports analysts and doctors reacted with outrage over Tagovailoa passing concussion protocol and re-entering the Bills game. Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who was the first to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma – in football players, gave a statement concerning Tagovailoa. He suggested that due to the severity and repetition of the head injuries that Tagovailoa suffered, he should seriously consider walking away from the sport as a whole.
On Oct. 8th, The NFL and NFLPA (National Football League Player’s Association) released a joint statement addressing Tagovailoa’s injury. They concluded that all proper concussion protocol steps were taken, but both organizations agreed that “the outcome in this case is not what was intended when the Protocols were drafted.”
The official concussion protocol has already seen some major changes since Tagovailoa’s injury. All gross motor function instability will now result in having a player sit; before, it had to be proven that the instability was related to head trauma, which can be nearly impossible to prove within a couple minutes. The NFL also responded this week by firing an independent neurotrauma consultant who cleared Tagovailoa to return to the Bills’ game. The Dolphins’ team physician is also being questioned on the steps they took after Tagovailoa’s injury.
Concussions have never been handled well in the NFL, and there’s no guarantee that this new concussion protocol will be followed in every instance. In 1994, previous NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue once told reporters that “On [the topic of] concussions, I think [it] is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly … There is no increase in concussions, the number is relatively small…the problem is a journalist issue.” There was no data to prove this; in fact, the number of concussions being diagnosed in the NFL was increasing.
That same year, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman suffered a concussion during the NFC Championship game. Aikman later stated, “I don’t know what planet I was on. I still to this day have no recollection of ever having played in that game. So whenever I see footage of that game, it’s like somebody else is out there doing it.” That game was played almost 30 years ago, and the 1994 season is regarded as one of the best in the franchise’s history — imagine not remembering that. And, on top of that, imagine the “big boss” of the NFL saying a couple months later that journalists are making concussions into a bigger issue than they really are.
Yes, the NFL has already taken the steps mentioned above to begin reforming concussion protocol. While this is progress, it’s only been about two weeks since Tagovailoa’s injury. The NFL has taken “quick” action many times before. I recently wrote a piece discussing the NFL’s lack of accountability on domestic violence cases within their organization. Multiple NFL players and teams violated COVID protocol and faced little to no punishment, with Aaron Rodgers’ refusal to get vaccinated being widely publicized. Conduct cases often fly under the radar or end in short suspensions. And, when it comes to player injuries, many don’t disclose injuries, eventually having degrading health issues as a result of continuing to play.
There are also more steps that the NFL could be taking to prevent or reduce head injuries. A study conducted by the University of Hawaii suggested that turf (an artificial alternative to grass used in approximately half of NFL stadiums) may lead to a greater chance of head trauma compared to grass due to it being a harder surface to play on. League injury data between 2012 and 2018 has even suggested that players are 28% more likely to suffer non-contact lower extremity injuries on turf than on grass. Regardless of these statistics and a call from the NFL Players Association, no changes have been made.
Guardian Caps were also introduced by the NFL for training camps this summer. These “caps” are actually padded shells attached to regular helmets, made to decrease the number of head injuries suffered by players. They were mandatory for use by all offense and defensive lineman, linebackers and tight ends. However, these were not mandated for the regular season, even though the NFL reported that head injuries decreased by 50% due to their use in training. These solutions are right in front of them, with the numbers to prove it. And yet, they don’t take them.
Tagovailoa shouldn’t have been the one to have forced the NFL to make a change. But, if this sticks, we may be looking at the start of a positive change for the NFL. On the other hand, we’re still looking at a lot of simple solutions being overlooked. So, should we expect improvement from the NFL? Maybe. The jury’s still out on that one.