Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa recently caught the attention of the sports and medical world. On Thursday, September 29, he dropped back to pass in a game against the Bengals. The Bengals 340-pound defensive tackle Josh Tupou broke through the line, chased Tagovailoa, caught him around the waist, spun him around and threw the quarterback to the turf. Tagovailoa went down with his elbow and then his head and helmet snapped against the ground.
Seconds later, TV cameras broadcasting the nationally televised game in prime time showed Tagovailoa holding his hands in front of his face, fingers splayed terrifyingly in awkward directions. The hand gesture is known as a “fencing response,” a brain injury symptom. After several minutes, he was eventually carted off the field on a stretcher with his helmet still on as teammates kneeled, showing their concern.
The Bengals won the game, 27-15. Tagovailoa sustained head and neck injuries and was treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center but traveled home with the team. He was placed on the league’s concussion protocol.
A second head injury in five days
Making matters worse, this incident was the quarterback’s second concussion in five days. He was likely concussed four days earlier on Sunday, September 25, in a game against the Buffalo Bills. In this game, Tagovailoa jumped into the air and made a pass that left him vulnerable. He was then shoved to the ground by another lineman, slamming his head against the turf.
He grabbed the sides of his helmet and could barely stand up. He walked eight steps, stumbled and took a knee. He was checked by medical staff, who diagnosed it as a back issue instead of a head injury. Rather than go into concussion protocol, the quarterback went to the locker room and then was cleared to continue playing in the game’s second half. He then led the team to a 21-19 victory.
NFL Players Association investigates
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) negotiated new concussion protocols in 2020 as part of their collective bargaining agreement. The league announced a week later that the Dolphins staff and league-affiliated neurologist had followed all appropriate protocols after the first injury on Sunday. In light of the second injury, those protocols will be scrutinized again. According to Sports Illustrated, the Player Association opened an investigation. Its reasons include:
- It doesn’t believe Tagovailoa should have played on Thursday.
- It thinks he should have stayed out of the Sunday game.
- It asserts that putting Tagovailoa back in on Sunday allowed the team to avoid concussion protocol, which would have been difficult to clear by Thursday’s game.
- It is angry that the league twice claimed the rules were followed before ever investigating the situation.
- It also wonders how the apparent back injury played into this and how someone can get cleared so quickly from a back injury.
In an effort to get answers, the NFLPA exercised its right to have the neurologist dismissed. An initial inquiry found that the neurologist did not understand the parameters of the role: He ran down a protocols checklist but did not adequately examine the patient and diagnose whether there was an injury or need for additional treatment. According to the union, the neurologist’s job is to work with the team doctor to make informed decisions regarding the player’s care.
This story is far from over. In the meantime, we wish Tagovailoa a complete recovery.