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  • Brianna Welch

The mishandling of Tua Tagovailoa’s head injuries & what it tells us about our flawed sports culture

How many mistakes made, concussed athletes, or lives lost are needed in athletics until CARE for the human being becomes the first priority? In a prior post we discussed the emotional, psychological and physical harm done to a different athlete, from a totally different sport, due to the lack of knowledge, attention and awareness of eating disorders in sports, and how coaches, media and institutions can contribute to these harms. Now, we are turning our attention to an equally important topic, the handling of physical trauma to the brain by the NFL.

Earlier this fall, Tua Tagovailoa was not the top priority when the Dolphins made the decision to put him back in the game during the second half against the Bills. He was again not respected, nor protected as a human being just four days later when he was put in the game against Cincinnati. Tua was just another piece in the game that they needed out there. It is not only frightening, but also dangerous to hear head coach Mike McDaniel respond “absolutely not” when asked if there was anything they should have done differently with Tua’s situation.

Anyone reviewing the footage of his first collision and his stumbling that results from it could see that he should not have been back out there. It was clear that something was wrong, yet his head coach, neuro-trauma consultant and team physician all let him play.

Some might say that Tua said he was fine, or that he was cleared by the questions they asked him. From an outsider perspective, and echoed by Alex Kirshner on an article on the incident, players are going to do whatever they have to do to pull through for the team. Does this make it right? Does that mean the players should be blamed? Or that the responsibility of making this decision lies fully in their hands. Absolutely not.

Yes, it is imperative that players have a say in their athletic experience and typically they know their body, they know what they can handle and they do know best. BUT at a time when safety is the biggest concern and players decision making may be muddled by a physical injury, outside expectations, pressures or a long-standing sports narrative to push through no matter what, it is the responsibility of the coach to step in and make the right decision for their health.

This is not just an issue of safety and physicality. It is an issue of:

  • institutional protocols and processes that have failed to protect athletes

  • coaches, physicians, staff, owners and all others surrounding the players who overlook or dismiss any situation that will take them out of the game

  • sports institutions on both the professional and collegiate levels that have become more invested in building a business and making as much as money as possible over investing in the individual and protecting their well-being

  • athletes getting sucked into this model and feeling the need to push through, not show weakness and not put their own safety and well-being first because it has traditionally been shunned to do this

The NFL, the coaches, the staff, the institution are all at fault. Times are changing in athletics. Organizations, coaches and players are all evolving. It’s time we finally realize that our players’ existence and experience in the sport is not to be a pawn in some business scheme or used in a transactional way. They are people first — they deserve to be viewed as such, to be valued for more than just what they bring to the field, to be respected and admired for the traits they possess as a human beings, and to be protected above all else.

Photo Credit: Jeff Dean/Associated Press

By Brianna Welch

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