The NFL Can’t Prevent Another Tua Tagovailoa

The scene after Tua Tagovailoa’s injury.
Photo: David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Fox NFL Sunday is the closest thing you’ll find to a football morning show: a bland, milquetoast, “what your grandparents are talking about” rundown of the biggest stories of the day. The goal of the program, like most morning shows, is to promote itself and its network and to assure you everything is ultimately going to be okay. (Tellingly, Michael Strahan is a co-host on both Fox NFL Sunday and Good Morning America.) It is a near-perfect distillation of the unquestioned conventional wisdom on everything.

So I was fascinated to see how the show would handle Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion, the first big controversy of the football season (but probably not the last.) In case you need a refresher: Last Thursday night, during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tagovailoa, the quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, hit his head on the ground violently after being sacked. He was so disoriented, so obviously suffering from a concussion, that he began involuntarily making the “fencing” response with his hands, a reflex widely connected to traumatic brain injuries.

This is a disaster. Pray for Tua. Fire the medical staffs and coaches. I predicted this and I hate that I am right. Two concussions in 5 days can kill someone. This can end careers. How are we so stupid in 2022. pic.twitter.com/D8S8eEbgda

— Chris Nowinski, Ph.D. (@ChrisNowinski1)

But the problem wasn’t just Tagovailoa’s injury; it was the timing. Only four days earlier, he had seemingly suffered a different concussion in a game against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins hadn’t labeled that first injury a concussion; they claimed it was a back problem and allowed Tagovailoa to play again against the Bengals with a dramatically shortened rest period — necessitated by Amazon Prime’s Thursday Night Football contract. In the wake of Tagovailoa’s second concussion, the doctor who had given him the all-clear after the first one was fired. The whole drama has led to yet another heated debate about how the league handles the inevitable problem of head injuries.

So what’d Fox NFL Sunday have to say about it? The roundtable discussion, featuring Jimmy Johnson, Howie Long, Jay Glazer, Terry Bradshaw and host Curt Menefee, was incredibly revealing. Johnson defended Miami coach Mike McDaniel, saying “he did nothing wrong,” and Strahan said Tagovalioa’s injury was “an unfortunate reality; we all played this game, that’s what happens. Things like this happen.” But the final, definitive word came from Howie Long, star of Firestorm: “I’m not sure how much we can prevent any more than we already do. You get hit in football. That’s the deal you make.” The panel then moved on to discuss Bradshaw’s battle with bladder cancer, which ended up being the primary topic of the show. But I think it’s worth listening to Long to understand why this controversy — despite being an existential threat to the game in a way that many of the league’s other controversies haven’t been — will end up fading away like all the rest of them.

“You get hit in football. That’s the deal you make.” We can be appalled by Tagovailoa’s injury; we can tell ourselves this is it, we’re not watching football anymore, this is savagery. We can have all sorts of very serious discussions about the Dolphins’ culpability or the league’s NFL concussion protocols, which the league and the players union have “updated” in the wake of the Tagovailoa incident. But so you know, that’s what people inside the game itself actually think about this: That’s the deal you make.

The updated protocols, in their way, are similar to the way the NFL handles every controversy: Put out a press release (or leak something to Adam Schefter) declaring that the current outrage will be dealt with, then wait for everyone to move on to something else. The new protocol, the league says, “will rule out players who exhibit gross motor instability … regardless of any possible contributing factors.” That seems like a pretty good idea, if one that should have already been implemented. But it’s telling that the rule change speaks so specifically to what happened to Tagovailoa: It deals with what just happened rather than reckon with the real issue. The problem is not that the Dolphins played Tagovailoa too soon after he had a brain injury; the problem is that playing football gives you brain injuries. And that’s not something the NFL can solve — or particularly wants to.

There were 187 diagnosed concussions in the NFL last season, which was actually the lowest number since the league started (read: was forced to start) counting in 2015. You should probably take issue with that number, particularly when many experts believe subconcussive impacts — repeated, sustained hits that fall below the concussion threshold — are in fact the driving cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But for the sake of discussion, sure, let’s go with 187. That’s more than ten diagnosed concussions a week in the league. (And remember: Taglovailoa’s initial injury wasn’t a diagnosed concussion.) To focus just on one incident is to forget the barrage of them every few days.

This is what football is. If you do not like it, you should probably stop watching. But people do not stop watching football. (It’s in fact driving the entire television economy.) You can try to make football safer all you want, but the central tenet of the sport is, alas, violence. It’s something the people who play the sport inherently understand: That’s the deal you make. 

In the Athletic this week, media columnist Richard Deitsch wrote about the flak Amazon Prime received for its treatment of the hit on Tagovailoa and its aftermath. The streamer was widely criticized for continuing to show the play over and over. (While the commentators themselves were criticized for barely mentioning the word concussion.)

But Deitsch argued the replays presented the unvarnished truth:

It was the most honest thing I witnessed in the three-plus-hour broadcast. That was the decision by Amazon’s production truck to show a half-dozen-or-so replays of Tua’s injury that included some high-def closeups. This was honest sports television, the violence of pro football unvarnished. It was painful and uncomfortable to watch. But it was real. 

Attempting to pin the blame on someone for Taglovailoa’s injury (the NFL, the Dolphins, team doctors, Amazon Prime, somebody)  is a perfectly natural human reaction. But if you’re looking for someone to fault, you have no one to blame but yourself — for watching, obsessively, no matter what. I include myself in this indictment: I love football, too, and I will continue to watch. I’ve had to make that peace with myself: The game I enjoy watching so much causes traumatic brain injuries essentially during every game. You can’t fire a team doctor and make that go away. And this is why we’ll forget. We’ll move on from Tagovailoa to the next controversy and the next one. We’d rather move on than stop watching. We always have. We always will.

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