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Will Tagovailoa’s injury change college football?

The Alabama QB’s season-ending hip dislocation raises questions about the ethics of deploying NFL-caliber players in blowouts, or at all.

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Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) is carted off the field after getting injured in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

SALT LAKE CITY — Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, his nose bloodied, his head slumped, his body propped up by his elbows and knees, awaited help. Trainers covered his face with a towel. They laid him onto a motorized cart and drove him out of sight from fans who had packed the stadium in Starkville, Mississippi, Saturday. He was eventually airlifted to a Birmingham hospital.

Thanks to a dislocated hip, Tagovailoa’s Heisman hopes are over, as is his season. But the injury may have far bigger consequences. It could cost Alabama a shot at a national championship. It could also alter the landscape of college football.

Tagovailoa’s injury comes at a time in which the NCAA is in the midst of a seismic shift. Multiple states are following California’s lead by introducing legislation that allows college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses (the California law will not take effect until 2023). Some players are skipping bowl games or even large chunks of the season in anticipation of professional football careers. Tagovailoa could’ve sat out Saturday’s game at Mississippi State — and every remaining game this season — and remained a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL draft. 

“The dominoes are going to start falling,” said Southeastern Conference media personality Paul Finebaum, according to 24/7Sports. “If you’re a player and you see this tragic, heart-breaking image of Tua, you’re going to say, ‘Why am I going to go out there and sacrifice my body and my future for one or two more games against Nobody Tech when I could be making millions of dollars?’”

Finebaum didn’t say exactly what college football players can do about this predicament. Most coaches, after all, aren’t going to like players pulling a Kawhi Leonard by requesting certain games off, nor are high-level college football players likely to want much time off, anyway. The Pacific Pro Football league is trying to position itself as a development league that pays would-be college players, but at this point, it isn’t a viable alternative to the college game.

And so it remains a predicament — with serious consequences: one “NFL person” told Finebaum he wouldn’t take Tagovailoa in the first round because he appears too injury prone, and that Tagovailoa therefore could’ve cost himself “tens of millions of dollars.”

“I think,” Finebaum said, “it’s going to have an effect on everything in college football moving forward.”

One way to observe that effect might be through Trevor Lawrence, the star Clemson quarterback who led his Tigers to a title win last year over Tagovailoa and Alabama. Lawrence is only a sophomore, so he won’t be eligible for the NFL draft until 2021. He nevertheless entered the 2019 season as one of the most-hyped draft prospects this century, leading some, like The Atlantic’s Robert O’Connell, to wonder why he’s still playing college football

In such a violent game, is the risk for injury not too great? Especially when Clemson plays “Nobody Tech,” wouldn’t it make sense to keep Lawrence on the bench? 

Lawrence doesn’t think so.

“I think the biggest thing is that to enjoy and appreciate every moment because you never know when something can happen,” he said per Sports Illustrated. “It’s, obviously, a violent game and you just never know. Anything can happen at any given moment. So, just appreciate it and enjoy it.”

There’s an argument to be made about the thrill of competing at the highest level of college football and chasing a championship as its own reward, which seems to be what Lawrence is saying. But that leads to a question — pondered by New York Times reporter Billy Witz following Tagovailoa’s injury — about how coaches should balance winning with knowing when to pull a star player.

Witz pointed to a question Alabama coach Nick Saban fielded during a press conference ahead of the Alabama-LSU game earlier this year about how much he considers a player’s earning potential when deciding to play him after an injury. Saban answered with another question: Did the player create value for himself because he was a great competitor? Did evaluators like him in part because he’s willing to sacrifice for his team? “People still value guys that want to always make the right decision about what they do,” Saban said. 

“Perhaps they do,” Witz concluded. “But the right decision for Saban may not have been the right one for his quarterback, who wanted to play on Saturday but now faces an uncertain tomorrow.”

That’s because Saban’s top incentive is to win — and win big, at that — to pass the College Football Playoff selection committee’s subjective “eye test.” That isn’t to say he purposely risked Tagovailoa’s health by playing him with the Crimson Tide up 35-7 in the second quarter. As he said, this was a freak injury that could’ve happened at any time to any player. But the fact that it happened to such a prominent player so late in the season is still cause for pause and reflection for Saban, college football coaches and the larger college football world. 

One way to alleviate complications, as observed by Los Angeles Times reporter Brady McCollough, would be allowing players to profit from their names, images and likenesses. 

“... Tua and the few players of his caliber have put everything on the line for schools that have created a system that does not protect their interests,” he wrote. “These state legislature ... bills may not fully solve the problem. But they would at least put an end to this.”

Tagovailoa’s situation calls to mind former Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa. Just last year, he suffered an injury and required surgery about halfway through the season. The then-junior was a projected top draft pick before the injury, so even with his team sporting a 7-0 record and a shot at a national title, he opted to leave school immediately to focus on his NFL future. 

The San Francisco 49ers selected him second overall in the most recent NFL draft. He’s in contention for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, and may also be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

Tagovailoa could still follow him as a top pick regardless of his injury. But in a game where such injuries can have substantial financial impact, his experience should be a conversation starter for players like Lawrence — players who have little left to prove in college football, having already compiled enough film to wow professional scouts and reached the pinnacle of success. Such players are likely ruthless competitors, but is embracing this trait worth the attached risks?

That, among the many questions raised by Tagovailoa’s injury, could be the most enduring.