Looking at the NFL’s history of concussion failure after Tagovailoa scare

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By Matthew Wynn
Earlier this season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took two major hits to the head within four days, prompting questions about the NFL’s commitment to their concussion protocol.

Tagovailoa sustained an injury against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 after being shoved, falling backwards, and bouncing his head off the turf.

He stumbled as he got to his feet, with teammates supporting him until he was taken back to the locker room for evaluation.

The Dolphins tweeted that he was questionable to return with a head injury, but he returned for the second half.

Four days later, Tagovailoa started against the Cincinnati Bengals and was subsequently slammed to the turf, sustaining a frightening concussion.

Viewers watched in horror as he raised his locked-up hands in front of his face. Tagovailoa suffered the “fencing response”, one of the body’s responses to brain trauma where the arms go into an unnatural position, according to healthline.

The incident was severe enough to spark revisions to the NFL’s concussion protocol and created “Tua’s Rule”. The new revision states that ataxia, poor muscle control that can result from injury, is grounds for an immediate removal from the game.

A doctor, who remains unnamed, was let go from the Dolphins in the wake of the scare.

John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens head coach, was astonished by what he saw Tagovailoa endure, according to CBS.

During a high stake playoff game versus the Buffalo Bills in January 2021, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson left the game with a concussion.

The Ravens did not score for the rest of the game, but when asked about the situation in the press conference after the season ending loss, Harbaugh said, “I’m not frustrated at all. He was in the concussion protocol. He had a concussion and was ruled out with a concussion. That’s where it stands.”

Some have pointed to Jackson being taken out as a team prioritizing concussion protocol in even more serious games than Tagovailoa’s Week 4 match-up.

While sustained concussions are down since the pandemic, concerns are still being raised about the failure of the concussion protocol.

Recently, eyes have fallen on the injury rate in special teams, the members of a team who are on the field during kicking plays. ESPN reported before the 2022-23 season that one in six concussions occur within special teams despite their plays only making up 17% of a game.

Given the high injury rates, the NFL is funding technologies to help lower the rate of concussions in practices, but has no active intent to deploy them in the game.

After receiving $20,000 in funding from a competition that promotes safety innovation in the NFL, Guardian Caps have been used by every NFL team prior to the start of this season.

The cap is Guardian Sport’s soft-shell helmet cover created with the purpose of minimizing the risk of concussions in practices after the founders realized that changing the “look and sound” of the sport is something that players and fans alike would not want. In response, Guardian Sports created an easily detachable cap for practices.

The padding on the helmet helps absorb the impact from a collision, potentially saving players from head trauma.

All offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight ends, and linebackers were required to use the caps until the second preseason game, the NFL reported.

Usage of the cap saw a 50 percent reduction in concussions compared to the average rate of 2018, 2019, and 2021.

The NFL tweeted, saying, “The Guardian Cap results in at least a 10% reduction in severity of impact if one player is wearing it, and at least a 20% reduction in impact if two players in a collision are wearing it.”

However, the caps have not been received well by many players who used them at training camps. Notably, J.J. Watt, three-time NFL defensive player of the year, expressed his displeasure.

ESPN reported that Watt joked about being fined for how much he expressed distaste with the caps. He felt off balance wearing it, and said it made him feel like a bobblehead.

The consequences for not taking any preventative measures for concussions are dire, and the use of Guardian Caps alone may not be enough to help players in the long run.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition caused by repetitive head trauma, has been found in 99 percent of donated brains of NFL players.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation says that behavioral symptoms linked to CTE can begin in a patient’s 20s. Common reported symptoms include: impulse control problems, aggression, mood swings, depression, paranoia, and anxiety.

Symptoms tend to worsen over time and give way to cognitive issues like confusion, impaired judgment, and dementia. Players face the risk of premature death while the disease continues to degenerate their brain.

One of the head researchers of CTE, Doctor Ann McKee, stressed that the numbers from this study should not be used to estimate the number of overall patients due to the studied brains all coming from symptomatic individuals.

However, the NFL expects 6,000 of 20,000 retired players to one day suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia, CBS reported.

No treatment for CTE exists.

The frightening number of potential cognitive issues caused by playing in the league prompted a $1 billion settlement, but Black retired players struggled to qualify for dementia-related payouts due to racial bias.

“Race-norming” was used in the dementia testing, assuming that black players would have lower baseline scores. The profiling complicated the process for retired players to show they had a substantial decline in their mental state, according to The Washington Post.

Despite steps being taken by the NFL and the National Football League Players Association to begin addressing the dangers of head trauma and CTE, well over 1,600 players have been concussed since the 2015-16 season.

Dr. McKee stressed the importance of the NFL accepting and combatting their high concussion rate to PBS, saying, “The NFL concentrating on concussions means that athletes at the college level, the high school level and hopefully at the Pop Warner level are going to pay attention to concussions, too.”

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