On Sunday, October 19th, during an NFL Week 3 matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, Bills linebacker Matt Milano pushed Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to the ground backward during a play. Tua’s head hit the turf hard, and when he was pulled back up by his teammates, he was stumbling around in a daze and nearly fell back to the ground. After realizing this, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel pulled the QB out for backup Teddy Bridgewater, although Bridgewater would then be pulled as Tagovailoa returned quickly after clearing concussion protocols. Just 4 days later, on a Thursday Night Football matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bengals nose tackle Josh Tupou sacked Tua and slammed his head to the ground, causing Tua to lay motionless in what’s called “fencing response”, a seizing of the arms and fingers while unconscious that indicates a serious brain injury. Tagovailoa laid on the ground like this for minutes was taken to the hospital, and has yet to play since.
These events sparked massive outrage from every NFL fanbase over the league’s concussion protocol. The League received immense backlash for clearing Tagovailoa to go back into the Bills game and play in the Bengals game when showing clear signs of a concussion. The NFLPA has since fired the neurologist who evaluated and cleared Tagovailoa, but with various other players being sidelined for concussions recently, such as Patriots QB Brian Hoyer, Colts LB Shaquille Leonard, Browns CB Denzel Ward, and even Dolphins QB Teddy Bridgewater, players and fans alike are starting to wonder just how dangerous the game really is.
The NFL has notably had a very tumultuous past with their treatment of player concussions, most notably with a class-action lawsuit in 2012 that involved over 4500 former players, resulting in a settlement of up to $1 billion from the league, as well as a movie in 2016 about the death of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, titled “Concussion.”
NFL center Mike Webster was one of the first to highlight this epidemic in professional football, passing away in 2002 to a heart attack at the age of 50. Many of his ailments after retirement, such as amnesia and dementia, were created and exacerbated by repeated head collisions. Webster was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE; a neurodegenerative disease that develops primarily from concussions trauma to the brain. Unfortunately CTE is a difficult disease to formally diagnose or treat; the only solution for it is prevention. Tests and scans for CTE can only be done during an autopsy, so it’s impossible to diagnose people with CTE while they’re alive. However, a pattern of symptoms do manifest in those suffering with CTE, such as erratic decision making, mood swings, difficulty thinking, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Many famous NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE, with some of the biggest names being 49ers TE Dwight Clark, Chargers LB Junior Seau, Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez, Raiders QB Ken Stabler, and recently, Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas.
Despite various pledges to make the game of football safer, either by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pledging $100M to player safety in 2016, or by recent partnerships with Amazon Web Services to increase monitoring of the field, the recent debacle with Tagovailoa’s concussions prove that, at the very least, they still have a long way to go. With all this focus, it’s hard to say that the NFL flat out doesn’t care about player safety – it’s difficult to try to take physical contact out of a sport like tackle football.