The NFL’s scandal of the moment surrounds how team and league authorities handled a series of hits to the head of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. In the immediate term, the story has been about league protocols. Did Tagovailoa suffer a concussion against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday? If he did, why didn’t the league or the Dolphins catch it? Was it a breakdown on policy, or in execution? Should the protocol change? (Yes, it seems, according to both the NFL and the players’ union.) These are questions that the NFL, as a workplace, needs to answer. But they also let the league and the Dolphins off the hook. Fundamentally, this isn’t a story about procedures. It’s about people, and how the ones tasked with Tagovailoa’s care allowed a potentially catastrophic sequence of events to unfold.
That sequence began a week ago, when Tagovailoa got pushed by a linebacker in the second quarter of the Dolphins’ game against the Bills. The Miami quarterback fell backward, and his head whipped against the ground. When he stood up, he was visibly unstable. He wobbled for a split second and then fell while trying to jog up the field, breaking the impact with his hands. Dolphins staffers escorted him to the locker room with just more than two minutes left in the first half.
When the second half began, Tagovailoa was back on the field. A team physician and an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant employed by the league cleared him to keep playing, declaring that—counter to the visual evidence—he had not suffered a concussion. Tagovailoa finished the game, leading the Dolphins to victory and building on a brilliant start to his season.
Thanks to a scheduling coincidence and the NFL’s desire to make billions of dollars, Miami had another game just four days later in Cincinnati. Tagovailoa played again and got concussed—this time, it was diagnosed as such—on a scary play in the second quarter. He left the field strapped to a board, having suffered what many people believe was his second head injury in four days.
Had medical officials diagnosed him with a concussion last Sunday, he would’ve been ruled out of that game against the Bills under the league’s concussion protocol, and he would’ve had to pass a battery of examinations to play against the Bengals. That didn’t happen. The NFL Players Association, which is investigating this series of events, has exercised its right to fire the consultant involved in letting Tagovailoa back in the Buffalo game. The Dolphins, for their part, have circled the wagons. Head coach Mike McDaniel, asked if the team should’ve done anything differently, said “absolutely not.” He also said the team and the unaffiliated consultant went “above and beyond” in questioning Tagovailoa to determine if he had suffered a concussion. The NFL’s internal media apparatus has also had a role to play. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported last Sunday without attribution that it was his “understanding” that a back injury had caused Tagovailoa to wobble after the hit against the Bills.
A common refrain among the NFL’s media class has been to point out that most of us are not doctors. Amazon Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football crew said it several times in the postgame. (They did not discuss the full context of the injury during the halftime show, a conspicuous absence for a new NFL rights holder.) Indeed, it’s true—most of us are not doctors. But it doesn’t take a medical license to understand it was reckless and callous to put Tagovailoa back in the line of fire after his head bounced off the ground.
Set aside league policy. If someone in the accounts payable department walked headfirst into a shelf and then fell down walking back to their desk, a responsible manager would tell them to take the rest of the afternoon off. The Dolphins and the NFL consultant watched Tagovailoa’s helmeted skull hit the ground with velocity. They watched him fall to his hands as he tried to jog in the aftermath. And then, after a short halftime break, they sent him back to the field to again be the primary target of some of the largest, most athletic humans in the world. Then, on a short week’s rest, they sent him out there again.
That any of this was allowed to happen calls the NFL’s protocol into doubt. Figuring out how to fix the finer points of league policy requires rigorous research and neurological expertise. Passing judgment on the Dolphins does not. That demands only a small touch of humanity, an amount that should exist even in the lucrative pressure cooker of professional football. A group of people of significant size had the power to use their own eyeballs, assess that Tagovailoa might have a problem, and keep him out of harm’s way for at least the second half of the Bills game, regardless of what team doctors or the NFL’s consultant were able to glean at halftime. Those doctors didn’t do that. The NFL’s people didn’t do that. McDaniel, the head coach, didn’t do that.
We have not heard much from Tagovailoa, other than a statement that, in part, thanked the Dolphins for their care and support. From the outset, he’s behaved in a way many players would, risking his own body for the good of the team. That’s why it’s so crucial for someone, somewhere, to enforce a more cautious approach, as the New England Patriots apparently did years ago for this former offensive lineman:
That should be the crux of the matter. The NFL’s concussion rules might be broken, and if so, that’s worth investigating and fixing. But the league and the Dolphins needed to aspire to a higher standard than just “following the protocol.” What was allowed to happen to Tagovailoa wasn’t just a breakdown of policy. It was a failure of respect.