Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
I had another article prepared for this week’s column. But after last week’s Thursday night football game, I could not ignore the travesty that unfolded when Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was whiplashed to the ground, lost consciousness, and then was carted off the field to a hospital.
The Dolphins lost to the Cincinnati Bengals, but nobody really cares about that. There have been several noteworthy hot takes concerning Tagovailoa’s injury and whether he should have been playing against the Bengals in the first place. But we must take a step back and remember that we’re not talking about avatars or fictitious characters created solely for our entertainment. These are people—men giving their all to play a game they love.
When Tagovailoa went down against the Buffalo Bills just four days before his injury in Cincinnati, it was apparent then that he had a concussion. (You can see for yourself.) According to the NFL’s concussion protocols, Tua should not have been allowed back onto the field at Buffalo. Nevertheless, he cleared concussion protocols and finished the game.
The medical staff, the Dolphins organization, and Tagovailoa himself alleged that his stumbling and disorientation was the result of a previous back spasm injury. But according to Chris Nowinski, Ph. D, a neurologist and founding CEO of Concussion Legacy Foundation, Tagovailoa should have never returned to Sunday’s game against the Bills. “I’m calling bull$hit on the ‘back tweak theory’,” he tweeted. “Watch the vid. Tua shakes his head multiple times to ‘clear the cobwebs’, which is a specific sign of vision impairment after concussion… His return is a fail,” he continued.
On the day of the Bengals game, Nowinski doubled down on an NFL ad highlighting the Tagovailoa versus Joe Burrow (quarterback for the Bengals) game that night:
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
Unfortunately, Nowinski was prophetic in his criticisms of Tagovailoa’s return to play.
Our society attempts to draw a line of morality and ethics in order to differentiate ourselves from the “barbarians” of history. Surely we’re not like the crowds of old who found entertainment in gladiators fighting lions, bears, and each other to the death, right? Nor are we like the nobles and commoners who enjoyed multi-day tournaments where knights on horseback jousted each other to near or actual death. Our sports today have protective equipment and rules that mitigate barbarous injuries. Certainly that makes us more advanced, no?
The evidence seems to indicate otherwise. I don’t know about you, but watching a physically phenomenal athlete lose consciousness and immediately begin a fencing response after taking a big hit makes me wonder less about their return to play and more about their quality of life moving forward. However, some fans are still hoping Tagovailoa hits the field next week against the Jets. Even Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel somewhat trivialized his injury after the Bengals game, commenting to the press that it was an emotional moment, but the best thing is that “everything is checked out” and “[t]hat he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.” To which Nowinski replied, “A concussion is a traumatic brain injury… It’s pretty high on the list of serious medical consequences of football.”
There’s a paradox of value in protecting human life while still ensuring that fans get the highest quality football game. Although we would all say human life is more significant, we would probably stop watching if the NFL decided to change the game to touch or flag football (like they’re already doing for February’s Pro Bowl). We love the game because it’s fast and physical, yet we cringe when the fruition of that speed and violence produces catastrophe.
In response to the widespread criticism and discomfort surrounding Tagovailoa’s injury, the NFL and the NFL Players Association have resorted to damage control to show they’re more concerned about protecting the players’ quality of life. However, these reactionary responses might signal that they care more about the quality of entertainment than the quality of player safety. And that’s not a criticism of the NFL. It’s an indictment on us, the fans.
Both Tagovailoa and McDaniel have since issued statements about the ordeal after receiving nationwide backlash. The independent doctor who cleared Tagovailoa in the Buffalo game has been fired. How fans respond to these injuries, however, will inevitably determine how the league handles its valuation system moving forward.
But how Christians respond—even if we’re not fans of the game—is just as meaningful if we want the world to recognize God’s concern and care for humanity. Tua Tagovailoa is our neighbor before he’s our quarterback or entertainer. But instead of waiting until someone has a traumatic response like Tagovailoa did in week four, we should support their safety before then—like the first time he was likely concussed in week three.
There is a business side to football. But hopefully, we can learn to be more concerned with the business of compassion, and allow it to drive the business of football instead.