Wednesday September 27, 2023

‘Protect Him and His Future’: Tua’s Concussion Raises Debate

  • Concussion expert Christopher Nowinski says "somebody has to draw a line somewhere."
  • Tagovailoa returned to the NFL's concussion protocol on Monday.
Tua Tagovailoa standing on field
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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Opinions on Tua Tagovailoa’s future have flowed since the Miami Dolphins quarterback found himself back in concussion protocol on Monday. 

From Aaron Rodgers saying that “it’s probably time to maybe consider shutting it down” to retired players now in sports media roles like ESPN’s Booger McFarland telling viewers Tagovailoa “shouldn’t play any more this season.”

The tenor of the conversations has changed over the last several years as concussions’ short-term and life-altering impacts have become better understood, an evolution Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder Christopher Nowinski has played a significant role in. 

“I think we want to make sure that we’re giving Tua the support that he needs,” Nowinski told Front Office Sports. “He’s going to be under an extraordinary amount of pressure, considering the Dolphins can still make the playoffs. He’s shown that he is willing to sacrifice his personal health for the team, but somebody has to draw a line somewhere to protect him and his future.”

As the Dolphins battle for a postseason spot over the last two weeks of the regular season, there’s no timetable for his return. Tagovailoa — like he’s already done once this season — will need to go through the NFL’s multistep return-to-play process that ends with an independent neurologist signing off before he’d be eligible to return. 

The NFL and NFLPA are conducting a joint review on whether the concussion protocol was followed, FOS confirmed on Wednesday. Replays showed the back of Tagovailoa’s head hit the turf late in the first half before he played the entire second half.

“We welcome that review, and as we have done previously, we will report the results in conjunction with the NFLPA,” the NFL said in a statement to FOS.

Tagovailoa will miss Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots.

Less than a week after Tagovailoa appeared dazed by a hit and remained in a game against the Buffalo Bills, a “Thursday Night Football” audience saw his hands stuck in a fencing position —  a sign of neurological distress — before he was carted off the field. 

Tagovailoa missed two games. 

Even as traumatic brain injury research has progressed, and more than 300 former NFL players have been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after their deaths, the message about a player’s future health can be obfuscated by a desire to return to action. 

“I don’t feel that very many active players have a full grasp of CTE based on my conversations with them,” said Nowinski, who retired as a WWE wrestler in 2004 after concussions left him with short-term memory issues, depression and debilitating headaches. “Most tend to think it’s strictly related to concussions [and not sub-concussive hits] still in 2022.

“The stories of the players who have to retire [due to concussions] are rare, but they are also forgotten about. It’s much easier to look at the potential to make tens of millions of dollars versus the potential to protect yourself from a chronic [condition] that you can’t even imagine. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to wake up every day with a headache, no longer being able to sleep normally, or just feeling depressed for what feels like no reason.”

The topic of concussions and players’ health is also one NFL agents have had to discuss with their clients more frequently in recent years. 

“If it’s trending in a direction where a player is putting himself at greater risk of further injury, then you really have to have a conversation about whether it’s worth continue playing,” an NFL agent who spoke to FOS on condition of anonymity. “He’s incredibly intelligent. Pride is important to him. Strength is important to him. Those are part of the culture he comes from [in Hawaii]. The kid just loves to play football.”

A representative for Tagovailoa’s agent declined to comment when reached by FOS. 

Tagovailoa dealt with a catastrophic hip injury in the SEC title game while playing for Alabama in 2019, the same type of dislocation Bo Jackson suffered in 1991 cut the two-sport star’s career short. 

The Dolphins still took Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick about four months later. 

Next season will be Tagovailoa’s final year of his first NFL contract, meaning 2023 will be crucial for his next deal — and altering his on-field tendencies could extend his career. 

“He can probably be coached to play the game in a different way to not take those chances that are going to put him at risk,” the agent said. “You can’t prevent somebody from hitting you and sacking you [in the pocket] because that’s on your O-line. But scrambling and putting your head down, that’s all stuff that can be coached out of you.”

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