No one should be surprised that the NFL failed to back up all the tough talk about player safety and concussions in the Tua Tagovailoa disaster. The league gives a lot of lip service to various causes, but doesn’t deliver.

All the much-discussed protocols that were in place to prevent exactly what happened to Tagovailoa — the tents on the sideline, the mandatory rest periods for concussions, the official game-day checklist for concussions, etc. — fell apart. Tagovailoa not only played punch-drunk through one game but four days later played another game before leaving the field on a stretcher with his brains scrambled.

After all the years of intense discussion and attention given to concussions in football — deaths and brain damage and CTE and suicides attributed to repeated blows to the head — how did this happen?

The NFL is all talk. The league also keeps telling us how serious it is about sexual abuse. But Deshaun Watson, a serial sex abuser, received a mere 11-game suspension while Calvin Ridley was slapped with a suspension that will last at least one year for gambling on games.

The league gave a lot of lip service to women’s health, too. Beginning in 2009, the league made a big production out of its ubiquitous breast cancer awareness campaign each October, with players, cheerleaders, coaches and fans decked out in pink. Proceeds from the sale of that pink merchandise was supposed to go to the American Cancer Society, but what it mostly did was sell more official NFL gear.

As Sports Illustrated put it in a headline, “NFL’s breast cancer awareness month (is) more about style than substance.” After everyone took cuts of the merchandise sales — the NFL, merchandise manufacturers, vendors — 8.01% of the proceeds went to the ACS, according to ESPN. The league ended the practice in 2016.  

The league also gives a lot of lip service to PEDs — performance-enhancing drugs (anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, etc.), and, if you read on, you’ll see this relates to the topic du jour — player safety/concussions. Earlier this year USA Today reported that NFL players have been suspended for PED use at least 258 times since 2001, a period of 21 years. That sounds like a lot; it’s not.

Last year The Guardian reported that in just four years (2017-21) track and field handed out 196 suspensions, including sanctions against 66 Olympic and World Championships medalists. There is an alphabetic list of track and field athletes on the internet who have been suspended for doping violations; the numbers surpassed the NFL’s 21-year mark of 258 before the end of the Fs. Cycling is the same story.

It should also be noted that when athletes in track and cycling flunk drug tests, they face real consequences, drawing suspensions that usually are for two years. Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1,500- and 5,000-meter runs, has been suspended for four years for testing positive for an anabolic steroid.

NFL suspensions are often four to six games and then the players are allowed to play again. 

No other athlete benefits more from increased size and strength — the benefits of HGH and anabolic steroids — than football players, and yet the number of football players who test positive lags well behind track and cycling. Somehow many other PED users seem to evade the tests; it would be naive to think otherwise.

What we know about Tua Tagovailoa’s head and neck injuries
Why Tua Tagovailoa’s injury puts the future of the NFL at risk

According to ESPN, four decades ago there was one player in the NFL who weighed more than 300 pounds; by 2010 there were more than 500 of them. The size increase far outstrips the increase in size in the general population.

NFL players are not only freakishly big, they’re freakishly fast. Put them on the hard turf fields, and they’re even faster. It’s Newton’s second law of motion — force=mass x acceleration. Translation: bigger (more dangerous) collisions. 

On Sept. 25, Tagovailoa’s head slammed into the turf after being tackled in the second quarter during a game against the Bills. He staggered to his feet, shook his head, jogged a few steps and collapsed to his knees. He passed NFL concussion protocols and was cleared by a doctor to return to the game. Later head coach Mike McDaniel would say Tagovailoa’s “legs got wobbly because his back was loose” —  but that sounded ridiculous. Did anybody really believe that or think Tagovailoa should return to the field? He finished the game, then played against the Bengals just four days later. 

Before the Bengals game, former college football player Chris Nowinski, now a neuroscientist and CTE expert, called the “back injury” explanation nonsense and tweeted, “If Tua takes the field tonight, it’s a massive step back for #concussion care in the NFL. If he has a 2nd concussion that destroys his season or career, everyone involved will be sued & should lose their jobs, coaches included. We all saw it, even they must know this isn’t right.”

While scrambling against the Bengals, Tagovailoa was thrown to the turf by a 348-pound lineman and didn’t get up. He rolled onto his back and brought his hands in front of his face, the fingers stretched and contorted in an odd way. Neurologists call this “decorticate posturing,” the body’s response to brain damage. He was taken off the field on a stretcher to a local hospital and later released in time to return home with the team, but the public outcry had already begun.

After the game, Nowinski tweeted, “This is a disaster. Pray for Tua. Fire the medical staffs and coaches. I predicted this and I hate that I am right. Two concussions in 5 days can kill someone. This can end careers. How are we so stupid in 2022?”

It is widely believed that if the brain isn’t given time to recover from a first concussion, a second concussion is more likely and will be more severe, potentially causing devastating, long-term effects.

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“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

The response has been swift. Nowinski says Tagovailoa should sit out the rest of the season and never play for the Dolphins again. The NFL Players Association is investigating and has threatened legal action. The NFLPA fired the consultant who cleared Tagovailoa to play. The NFL and the NFLPA have agreed to update concussion protocols that will sideline players who exhibit gross motor instability.

Because Tagovailoa’s stumble and obvious instability (in the first game) was attributed to his back, and not due to a blow to the head, he did not fall under the concussion protocols and therefore could return to the field. Under the new beefed-up protocols, it won’t be up to doctors to decide WHY a player was unstable. If he’s unstable, he’s out.

Maybe the current concussion protocols were lacking in some way — that’s highly debatable — but you have to wonder: Where was the common sense?

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday, September 29, 2022, in Cincinnati. Tagovailoa was later injured in the game and was taken off the field on a stretcher. | Matt Patterson, Associated Press
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