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N.F.L.’s Concussion Protocol Under Scrutiny After Tagovailoa Injuries

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A few hours after the Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was so violently thrown to the sector that he lay contorted in a way related to brain injury and needed to be carted off the sector in a stretcher, he was released from the hospital and allowed to fly home along with his team.

Talking to reporters before departing, Coach Mike McDaniel said watching his quarterback down on the sector was “an emotional moment” but then expressed relief “that he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.”

For individuals who have pushed the N.F.L. to take a more aggressive posture toward head injuries, the words contradicted messaging from the league that, especially after a $1 billion settlement with former players with cognitive defects from the sport, it was taking the issue seriously.

“I don’t think this guy gets it,” Chris Nowinski, a co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and a frequent critic of the league, wrote on Twitter.

“A concussion is a traumatic brain injury & posturing suggests brain stem injury,” Nowinski said. “It’s pretty high on the list of great medical consequences of football.”

Already, Tagovailoa’s health was drawing renewed scrutiny of the N.F.L.’s problem with head hits and concussions. His injury Thursday, in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, was the second time in per week that Tagovailoa appeared to sustain a head injury; after the last one, in a game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday when he was helped to the sideline by trainers, he returned to play half-hour later, infuriating former players.

The injury Thursday provoked more concern.

“Truth be told Tua should probably never have been playing,” said Emmanuel Acho, a former linebacker and now an analyst on Fox Sports. “He displayed neurological trauma last week, we disregarded it, labeled it a ‘back injury’ & let him back in the sport. Now, the entire world watch as he lay on the sector helpless. When will we put player safety FIRST!”

On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vp for communications, public affairs and policy, said that “every indication” was that the league protocols had been followed by the team’s doctors and the league-affiliated neurologists at the sport. But by then, the N.F.L. players union had begun an investigation into the Dolphins’ handling of Tagovailoa’s earlier injury. The method can take weeks.

A spokesman for the N.F.L. declined to comment on Tagovailoa’s latest injury, saying Miller’s comments still stood.

Under the league’s concussion protocols, players displaying instability after successful are evaluated by each the team doctor and an independent neurologist, who’s hired by the league but not on team staff. Together, they determine whether a player can return, with the team doctor having the final word say.

The league has reported concussions are trending downward, to 187 in 2021 from 275 in 2015.

Yet legal experts have questioned whether or not they are fully documented, and so long as the team doctor could make a final ruling, the protocols are only nearly as good because the willingness to follow them.

“These measures aren’t any different than when Big Tobacco was telling people for years that they put filters on cigarettes and made them safer,” said Brad Sohn, a lawyer who has represented quite a few current and former players who’ve sued the N.F.L. “The concussion protocols have a loophole sufficiently big to drive a truck through.”

Apart from the concussion protocol, the N.F.L. has sought to deal with head injuries with higher helmets and regulations and a marketing campaign de-emphasizing head hits.

Yet reminders of the inherent violence of the sport are constant.

The N.F.L. has built itself into the most-watched league by marketing brutality, speed and power in game-size nuggets. The league and its broadcast partners rejoice hard tackles during games and in countless highlight reels. Players have change into millionaires for his or her willingness to place their bodies on the road in pursuit of victory.

Still, as doctors have exposed the ravages of repeated head hits, public opinion has turned. More parents are pushing their sons into soccer and baseball. Scholastic football programs have shrunk and even shuttered.

Fearing a shrinking pipeline of latest players and fans, the N.F.L. has spent a whole bunch of tens of millions of dollars to assuage nervous parents that the sport may be made safer.

On the skilled level, though, risk of great injury is a component of the calculation for the multimillion-dollar salaries and potential fame.

As McDaniel put it, “That isn’t a part of the deal that anyone signs up for, despite the fact that you realize it’s a possibility in football to have something that you’ve to be taken off on a stretcher.”

On Friday, McDaniel sought to allay concerns about Tagovailoa’s health, at the least outwardly. He said on the flight back to Florida that the player “pulled out his phone and commenced playing my cult favorite classic movie, ‘MacGruber,’ that he watched and was laughing with me. I feel he was just blissful to be along with his teammates. All of his teammates were so elated. I mean, this was a scary, scary situation for all of us.”

The players union, just like the league, is conflicted on the difficulty, since its members are depending on the incomes they earn in consequence of the league’s riches and lots of players willingly rush back to the sector when their bodies are telling them they shouldn’t.

“A failure in medical judgment is a failure of the protocols in the case of the well being of our players,” J.C. Tretter, the president of the N.F.L. Players Association, wrote on Twitter. “We now have come a good distance previously 15 years however the last week proves how far we now have left to go.”

Emmanuel Morgan contributed reporting.

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