The NFL and NFLPA released a joint statement yesterday, the day after the Players Association urged the league to accept the new language for the NFL-NFLPA Concussion Evaluation and Management Protocol that they wanted in place for this weekend’s slate of games. The statement showed the two parties reaching a mutual conclusion concerning both the nature of the changes to the protocol and the findings of the investigation into the injuries of Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Just because the two parties came to an agreement doesn’t necessarily mean everyone involved is now on the same page. The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, was quoted as he spoke passionately on a Zoom call, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network. Sills flew to the defense of the medical professionals involved in clearing Tagovailoa, saying that they operated with “absolute integrity.” He claimed that they all see “a patient and not a player” in that kind of situation and that “no one involved cares about the position of the player or the score of a game.” He then moved to defend the protocol, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, saying that it “is not broken” but “can always improve.”
In response to the firing of the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant in Tagovailoa’s case, Sills claimed that “it was extremely unfortunate to make an action prior to review being completed.” According to Rapoport, Sills’ sentiments were echoed by the NFL executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, Jeff Miller, who was quoted saying, “It’s not something we would have done and didn’t. We never supported terminating him.” Miller deferred an explanation to the union, according to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network, claiming it was the NFLPA’s decision to terminate the UNC despite protocols being followed.
Retired NFL center and president of the Players Association JC Tretter defended the union’s decision to terminate the UNC saying that, while the UNC technically followed the protocols, the NFLPA does “not believe this was a meaningful application of the protocols.” Tretter pointed out that “nobody, including the NFL, believes (Tagovailoa) should have been put back in the game,” seemingly insinuating that utilizing the loophole of Tagovailoa’s back injury as an alternative cause of gross motor instability, despite not taking time to examine him for a back injury, was a fireable offense.
Sills also spoke to the effects of the new protocol. He confirmed that, with the wording of the new protocol disqualifying any players showing symptoms of ataxia, Tagovailoa would’ve been effectively ruled out, according to Rapoport. He also warned of some potential negative consequences to the new wording, according to Pelissero, pointing out that “players diagnosed with ataxia will be treated the same as others with concussions, including needing independent neurologist clearance to play again.” He also pointed out that it would be “extremely unlikely” that a diagnosed player could clear all the steps required in order to return in just four days, hinting that the new protocol would also have held Tagovailoa out of the Thursday night game that saw him succumb to further head trauma.
Sills also acknowledged that, with the new wording, there will likely be some players who end up getting pulled even if they don’t have a concussion, according to Pelissero. This is one of the first major steps we’ve seen towards an actually conservative handling of head injuries, and it’s a tradeoff that the NFL and NFLPA will readily accept. Sills told the media, “We’d rather hold someone out that doesn’t have a brain injury than put someone out there that does have a concussion and we weren’t able to diagnose it,” a sentiment many who preach “player safety” have been pounding the table with for years.
The new protocol is now in place and will hopefully lead to more examples of protecting the league’s players. The protocol is only the first step, though, as now the league has to ensure that everybody involved in the process is retrained to follow the new checklist, released first yesterday by Pelissero. Even the two steps together will not guarantee that the protocol will be followed entirely to a T without fail. Just last week, Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate returned to a game after suffering a blow to the head and exhibiting “injury behavior” without so much as an examination, according to Mike Florio of NBC Sports. Florio wrote that Sills disagreed with the spotters’ conclusion that Brate was struck in the shoulder and not the head, and that Brate should have been examined for a concussion before re-entering the game. So even with the perfect protocols in place, human-error still persists, and the league will need to take steps in monitoring cases like this and taking action, when necessary.
Finally, we can turn our attention to the larger picture, in terms of an entity to which even the NFL must answer. The recent controversy reportedly drew the attention of the US Congress as Bill Pascrell, Jr., a member of the House of Representatives and head of the Brain Injury Task Force sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross inquiring about what was to be done to address player safety. The letter showed fundamental misunderstandings of the league’s policy and procedures, according to Florio, but still rightly demanded that action be taken. Pascrell’s response to the action taken last night has yet to be seen, but the entire situation may not be fully put to bed until the fat lady (Congress) sings.
For now, though, the NFL is in action-mode, putting into effect their new protocol. The rest of us will have to wait and see; see if the league acts more conservatively, if the danger of brain reinjury wanes, if player safety will take precedence over profit and product. The league is under the microscope and will hopefully become more proactive than reactive as a result.