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Tua Tagovailoa's Thursday Night Football injury belongs to the Dolphins and the NFL

The NFL players union is rightly angry at an apparently diminished player being sent back out to play.
Image: Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is attended by medical staff.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is attended by medical staff at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 29, 2022.David Santiago / Miami Herald/ Tribune News Service via Getty Images file

In the first half of a division game against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 25, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sustained a brutal hit to the head. He staggered away from the impact and wobbled off the field, and it seemed obvious that he’d sustained a head injury of some kind.​ The NFL mandates myriad independent protocols in cases of a suspected concussion. But despite those requirements, Tua, as he is most often called, was sent back to the field in the second half.

The shock at seeing Tua back on the field that Sunday overshadowed the Dolphins’ upset win

The shock of seeing Tua back on the field that Sunday overshadowed the Dolphins’ upset win. The NFL Players Association immediately called for an investigation. Dolphins Coach Mike McDaniel and Tua himself brazenly claimed — to much derision — that a back injury had caused Tua to stumble back to the sidelines during that first half.

Then, even more disturbingly, Tua was sent back onto the field Sept. 29 for a Thursday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

He had no business being on that field Thursday night, but he still put on the pads. Late in the first half, when 6-foot-3, 340-pound Bengals defensive tackle Josh Tupou crushed him back into the turf, Tua’s head slammed violently. He was down for seven minutes before being loaded up on the cart.

Thursday-night NFL games played just four days after the Sunday ones have been widely derided by fans and media members because the quality of the contests suffer from the absence of preparation. The players can’t stand them for a different reason. Playing the Thursday after a Sunday game doesn’t give their bodies time to recover. These Thursday games, which began in 2006, need to be abolished for the good of the players and for the good of the sport.

After the Bengals’ Tupou tackled him, Tua flexed his fingers awkwardly in front of his face for several seconds as he lay prone. It was one the most chilling things I’ve ever seen on a football field. Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neurologist, told NBC News the next day that “it was very concerning that when he went to the ground, hit his head, a severe blow to the back of the head, and then he has arms come up and he has that what’s called a fencing posture." She said, "That to me is an indicator of a serious blow to the head, head or neck and some brain stem injury."

McDaniel said Friday that Tua was expressing hope that he wouldn’t miss certain games on the Dolphins’ schedule, and he said he told the quarterback, “Let's worry about you and your head and being a healthy human being and we'll worry about playing football later.'"

There’s no timetable for his return to the game. Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who connected football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, recorded a video released Wednesday where he addresses Tua, a third-year professional, directly, saying, “If you love your life, if you love your family, you love your kids — if you have kids — it’s time to gallantly walk away. Go find something else to do.”

These Thursday games need to be abolished for the good of the players and for the good of the sport.

Chris Nowinski, the former college football player, professional wrestler and founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, was furious when speaking to The Associated Press after the Dolphins - Bengals game. (I’ve interviewed Chris on several occasions, but I’ve never heard him so angry.) He said that during the Buffalo Bills game, “Tua showed five distinct signs of concussion. Anybody who has any training on concussions or cares about Tua as a human is not putting him on field four days after what he showed on Sunday, so this makes it so much worse because we know that this could be career-ending or season-ending. It should be season-ending, in my opinion. And it just shows just a lack of care for him as a human being.”

The independent, unaffiliated concussion doctor who authorized Tua’s return to the field against Buffalo has since been fired by the players' union.

“We are all outraged by what we have seen the last several days and scared for the safety of one of our brothers,” NFLPA president JC Tretter tweeted Friday. “What everyone saw both Sunday and last night were ‘no-go’ symptoms within our concussion protocols. … Our job as the NFLPA is to take every possible measure to get the facts and hold those responsible accountable. We need to figure out how and why the decisions were made last Sunday to allow a player with a ‘no-go’ symptom back on the field.

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For all the public precautions the NFL says it takes to safeguard players against concussions, the old way still has a tremendous sway inside the locker room. According to that old way of thinking, a concussion only gets you a “You just got your bell rung. Get back out there.” Generations of players suffered and suffer from CTE and the effects of traumatic brain injuries precisely because of the NFL’s historical concussion culture.

After an outcry driven by reports of the suffering of former players, the NFL put concussion protocols in place because it no longer wants to look like a brain injury factory. But in that regard, the NFL is no different than the tobacco companies that argued that larger filters made their cigarettes safe.

The NFL is talking out of one side of its mouth about player safety while promoting Thursday night contests. On top of that, this is the second season in which NFL players are expected to participate in 17 bruising regular season games instead of 16.

For all the precautions the NFL says it takes to safeguard players against concussions, the old way has sway inside the locker room.

The Dolphins should be raked over the coals for appearing to be so flagrantly casual about Tua’s health. But remember that the hypocrisy of the NFL means that the culture of pain and brain damage isn’t going anywhere.

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the Denver Broncos are playing the Indianapolis Colts. Both teams start quarterbacks on the wrong side of 30. There’s 33-year-old Russell Wilson for Denver and 37-year-old Matt Ryan for the Colts.

Wilson is coming off a shoulder injury after Sunday’s contest against the Las Vegas Raiders. It’s an injury he's expected to play through.