Updated: Oct 1
(Photo Credit: Atlanta Falcons, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
It was a tough, hard fought win on Thursday Night Football for the Cincinnati Bengals. Count this as another strange game in what is already shaping up to be a strange season. But the Bengals pulled through, and now that they’ve fought their way back to .500, they can breathe a sigh of relief after a rocky start.
Despite the impressive Bengals victory, the story of the night was the scary injury to Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It was a frightening scene. After scrambling backwards, Tua was yanked to the ground for a sack by Bengals nose tackle Josh Tupou, during which the third-year QB landed with incredible force on his back and head. Tua remained motionless for what felt like an eternity until he was safely secured on a stretcher and transported to University of Cincinnati Hospital.
First, the good news: all indications are that Tua has use of all his motor functions and in all his extremities, is in good spirits, and will likely be able to make a full recovery. Now the bad news: this was a horrible look for the NFL - and for whoever on the Dolphins was responsible for allowing Tua to play in this game.
After so many years of having the impact of concussions rammed down our throats (there was a Hollywood movie literally titled Concussion that came out in 2013), there’s a palpable fear that all the concussion-protocols, all the awareness, all the medical professionals on the NFL payroll, failed this poor kid. Last Sunday, during the Dolphins victory over the Buffalo Bills, Tua was plowed into the turf by Bills linebacker Matt Milano, in what looked at the time as a head injury. Tua certainly didn’t allay anyone’s fears when he stumbled and fell shortly after picking himself up off the ground.
When he went down against the Bengals, an utter silence befell Paycor Stadium. All of a sudden, the NFL media was on fire. Everyone wanted to talk about how they knew Tua was concussed against the Bills. They knew he shouldn’t have been playing on Thursday. How dare the Dolphins, the doctors, and the NFL let him play.
Now, it’s important to remember a significant detail: the Dolphins medical staff, the independent neurologist, even Tua himself, all claimed the injury was a back injury. As I mentioned earlier, the NFL has come a long way from the ‘90s. You don’t see the massive hits on highlight reels anymore. Players aren’t glorified for playing through brain trauma. There are medical professionals whose careers depend on making the accurate medical decisions. It’s one thing to say that Tua shouldn’t have played Thursday night, but an entirely different thing to suggest that there’s this conspiracy between Tua, the Dolphins coaching staff, and the medical professionals.
So, the NFL Players Association will do an investigation. What will they find, you ask? Likely, nothing. It’s all been documented already. Tua got hurt against Buffalo, he was examined, he said it was a back issue, the medical professionals corroborated that, and so did the Dolphins coaching staff. He played on Sunday, and unfortunately, he got hurt again - this time, his brain got hurt indisputably. We don't know yet if his injury against the Bills contributed to, was exacerbated by, or was entirely separate from his injury against the Bengals, and we may never know.
I understand the outrage, but let’s put the pitchforks and torches down. Tua got hurt - it was a horrible moment - but can we please recognize that football will never, ever be 100% safe? Can we please keep in mind that a 350 lbs. man throwing a 220 lbs. man to the ground will never, ever look pretty? Can we please understand that these medical professionals aren’t gods, and that they’re limited by the technology and practices that we have available today, and that they can’t literally get into Tua’s brain and determine with 100% accuracy whether or not he has a brain injury?
But hindsight is crystal clear - Tua should not have been playing four days after he suffered that "back" injury versus Buffalo. In this case, the NFL’s medical procedures regarding head injuries failed him, but that doesn’t mean the system is broken. Remember, football, by definition, cannot be completely safe. Injuries are a part of the game. The NFL has come a long way, but last night was a reminder that there’s still plenty of work to be done.
This is pure speculation, but wouldn't it have been a good idea to get an MRI scan on his head and back after that Buffalo injury? Just in case? Maybe if that had been done, we wouldn't even be talking about this today. On the bright side, hopefully Tua’s injury will further de-incentivize players from trying to play through brain injuries. It’s just not worth it.