The NFL Players Association has exercised its prerogative to request an investigation as to the events that resulted in Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa re-entering Sunday’s game against the Bills, despite displaying gross motor instability after his helmet struck the ground.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the investigation — jointly conducted by the league and the NFLPA — will entail a review of the relevant film, along with conversations with Tagovailoa, the team physician, the Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant, and any other relevant persons. The investigation is expected to require one to two weeks to complete.
The question then becomes whether the league and union will agree that the concussion protocol was, or wasn’t, properly followed. For occasions of gross motor instability, the player can be cleared to play only if the team physician and the UNC conclude that the instability did not have a neurological cause.
How did that happen in this case? Did they simply take Tua at his word that his wobbliness came from an unreported back injury that he suffered earlier in the game? Did they do anything else to show that the instability was not the result of a head injury?
Obviously, he was cleared to return. But whether he showed signs of impairment when examined in the locker room is a different question from whether his gross motor instability did, or didn’t, have a neurological cause.
If an impasse arises as to whether the concussion protocol was followed, the union can file a grievance. The question would be resolved via arbitration. However, the NFL and NFLPA have always reached an agreement regarding whether, in any given case, the concussion protocol was or wasn’t followed. In the past fines have been imposed on the team. One or more UNCs have been relieved of their duties. Changes to the protocol have been made to address and to fill potential loopholes.
There’s a potential loophole when it comes to the procedure for evaluating players with gross motor instability. If they’re merely accepting the player’s version of why and how he was wobbly, that shouldn’t be good enough. Under the vague but reliable standard of know it when you see it, we all knew that Tua was knocked wobbly from a head injury, because we saw it.
Whatever the outcome, the protocol needs to be applied in a way that protects players who are displaying such impairment, especially since players are typically wired to do whatever they have to do and say whatever they have to say to keep playing.
Only a handful of stars, with true and unambiguous job security, have the freedom to be candid on this topic. For all others, there are very real potential consequences to not playing, whatever the reason. Thus, a very real temptation exists to ignore potential head injuries in order to keep going. The protocol must take that dynamic into account, in order to prevent the worst possible outcome — a player who has suffered one head injury sustaining a second one shortly thereafter.