The NFL terms its concussion policy a “protocol,” which is a stout word meant to suggest order and progress. It’s documented over 19 regimented pages offering how the NFL of 2022 cares for players’ health over teams’ needs.
The protocol, at its core, is a joke.
And core is there on page six.
That’s where the idea of the “independent” doctor deciding on players’ concussions and held up this past week around the Miami Dolphins as some purveyor of truth, justice and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s health is a fantasy action hero like Iron Man or Captain Marvel.
Oh, the protocol has full pages about this doctor with the sturdy title of an “Unaffiliated Netrotrauma Consultant.” But here’s the nut graph of his role and the entire protocol in action:
“For the avoidance of doubt, the responsibility for the diagnosis of concussion and the decision to return a player to a game remain exclusively within the professional judgment of the Head Team Physician …”
Bottom line: The independent doctor is window dressing, if so desired. The team doctor decides if this independent doctor is consulted or if a player enters the concussion protocol. He decides if a player returns to the game as Tagovailoa did last Sunday against Buffalo after his head banged the ground, he shook his head to clear cobwebs, couldn’t walk without help and went to the locker room with what the team initially announced as a head issue.
“A back issue,” Tagovailoa corrected everyone afterward.
Maybe it was. Maybe the NFL players’ union immediate call for an investigation goes nowhere. Maybe Tagovailoa being carried off the field Thursday in Cincinnati was not the result of one head-trauma incident contributing to a second one four days later. Maybe the criticism of players and coaches across social media and four sports medical people in pro sports I talked with are empty words.
This just seems so yesteryear, like the early 1970s when Dolphin safety Jake Scott was allowed to keep playing against Buffalo despite teammates insistence he was loopy. After the game, Scott went to the Buffalo locker room in a daze and O.J. Simpson escorted him back to the Dolphins, saying, “I think this is one of yours.”
Football is full of “funny” concussion stories that don’t sound so funny now with decades of research and knowledge. Dolphins quarterback Trent Green was knocked out so completely in Houston in 2007 he was snoring on the field. Literally snoring.
Escorted to the sideline, Green insisted to coaches and medical staff he was good to go, and to put him back in. Fortunately, common sense prevailed.
Tua returned to play on Sunday and then played Thursday. This isn’t to question Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, who can only follow medical counsel and was nearly brought to tears over Tua’s condition. Nor is it to challenge team doctor John Uribe who concluded Tua had a back issue.
Tua was a louder Green on this subject, according to a league source. He demanded to return to the game. He’s playing well this year, turning two years of questions into a third year of belief and insisted on playing in a big game. That’s a tough spot for a team doctor.
That’s why the “independent” doctor has been held up so loudly this past week as a defender of all things good. It’s just a hollow idea in practice.
Should Tua have been allowed back last Sunday? Should he have played Thursday? Should he play next Sunday against the New York Jets?
That’s left to trained medical minds and NFL players’ union investigators. But the protocol that the NFL touts as making a violent game less violent needs some selective editing. Page 6 needs a good rewriting.
Everyone should agree on this much: Please, don’t play Tagovailoa again until he’s healthy. Please keep him out of football until his headaches cease, his MRI clears and the computer base-lines involving his brain taken in the quiet of the offseason are normal.
And please, please, quit pretending some “independent” doctor oversees players’ health on concussions when the NFL of 2022 operates more closely to the one of 1972.