How Tua Tagovailoa’s Concussions Forced the NFL to Modify Its Concussion Protocols

On October 8, 2022, the NFL and NFL Player’s Association agreed on a new concussion protocol to be used on game days.

The critical changes stemmed from two concussions that Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sustained in back-to-back games less than a week apart.

First, Tagovailoa’s head forcefully hit the turf on September 25th against the Buffalo Bills. It was apparent that Tagovailoa had suffered a severe head injury as it looked like he could barely walk without stumbling.

Despite this scary scene, Tagovailoa somehow was allowed to return to the game and was also permitted to play in the team’s next contest on Thursday night, merely five days later. In that game, Tagovailoa suffered an even more dangerous blow to the head, this time leaving him unconscious for an extended period, and he was carted off the field.

The situation left fans and analysts bewildered and appalled. How was Tagovailoa cleared to return to play despite displaying such obvious concussion symptoms?

Here’s how: the NFL’s concussion protocol contained a loophole revolving around gross motor instability. A player who demonstrated an inability to function could re-enter a game if the team’s physician ruled that the issue did not stem from a neurological cause.

Therefore, while the Miami Dolphins’ neurological consultant followed the league’s concussion protocol, they took advantage of a flaw in the rule book, which put a player in significant danger.

In a joint press release, the NFL and NFLPA stated: “While the investigation determined that the team medical staff and unaffiliated medical professionals followed the steps of the Protocol as written, the NFL and NFLPA agree that the outcome in this case is not what was intended when the Protocols were drafted.”

The NFL and NFLPA were forced to react swiftly to fix the issue, and they agreed on a revamped concussion protocol that closed the loophole.

The new and improved protocol prevents players from returning to action if they show signs of ataxia, a term centering around impaired coordination, poor muscle control, visible confusion, and symptoms of amnesia.

“Specifically, the term ‘ataxia’ has been added to the mandatory ‘no-go’ symptoms,” stated the NFL and NFLPA.

Following this seemingly obvious and necessary change, the NFL has seen more players being removed from games, particularity after roughing the passer penalties.

While the new protocol seems to have forced NFL medical staffs to err on the side of caution, NFL fans have also noticed an increase in the number of flags being thrown.

“I specifically remember when Tom Brady was taken down on what seemed like a normal tackle, but the referees called it roughing-the-passer,” recounted Saint Paul’s sophomore Noah Montz. This followed a controversial game-changing call during a pivotal Week 5 matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. According to Montz, there is “a strong possibility that the NFL told its officials to increase the number of calls to protect the sport’s most vital position.”

Montz believes that the loophole begged the question: “Would the team doctor make that same decision to endanger a worse player? That game was a key divisional game between the Dolphins and Bills. Tua [Tagovailoa] had been playing like an MVP, and quarterback is the most important position in all of sports. You tell me the doctor wasn’t pressured… I’m glad they fixed [the protocols], but I don’t like the soft penalties.”

The week after the revised concussion protocol was enacted, during the Thursday night clash between the Colts and Broncos, Colts running back Nyheim Hines was pulled from the game following a hit to the head on the game’s third play.

Hines became the first player to enter the NFL’s revamped concussion protocol after showing clear signs of ataxia and gross motor instability, visibly struggling to stand. Hines’s removal, unlike Tagovailoa’s, kept him out the following week before being safely cleared to return to play in Week 7.

Colts' Nyheim Hines exits Broncos game in first quarter with apparent head  injury after hard tackle | Daily Mail Online

The new concussion protocol may have passed its first test in the league; however, NFL officials will continue to monitor situations like Tagovailoa’s and Hines’s as they strive toward making the naturally violent sport of football as safe as humanly possible.


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