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Heads Up

It was a normal football Friday night as I took my spot in the press box for another game of statistical coverage. What wasn’t normal was the operator of the game film camera standing next to me. The young man behind the camera was a member of the school’s football team. Inquiring as to why

It was a normal football Friday night as I took my spot in the press box for another game of statistical coverage. What wasn’t normal was the operator of the game film camera standing next to me.

The young man behind the camera was a member of the school’s football team. Inquiring as to why he was in the press box rather than on the field, he told me he had taken a hit to the head the week previous and was now in concussion protocol. A week later, the same player was still watching from the sidelines. Although he was anxious to get back to game action, cooler heads were prevailing as educated cautions were taking place to make sure all effects of the head injury had cleared.

Decades ago, someone who had their ‘bell rung’ would be hurried back to action, especially if he/she was an important member of the team’s success. Thankfully, that is not the case these days, as even the hint of a concussion limits a player’s return to play until all the established screening processes have been successfully completed.

Scholastic coaches are required to take annual training each season to fully identify and understand the potential seriousness of head injuries to their players. Players undergo a base test before each season that is used as a guide to help determine a player’s cognitive status when situations of a head injury occur. Athletic trainers are diligent in their duties and have the final say regarding an athlete’s return to play.

A few weeks ago, these concussion precautions came to mind when Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s head hit the ground hard. Following a brief medical evaluation, he returned to the game and led his team to a victory. Four days later, on a Thursday night game in Cincinnati, he took another hard hit and was taken from the field on a stretcher.

His return to that Sunday afternoon game was met with widespread skepticism, as was the explanation given for his return. Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel told the media that “his legs got wobbly because his back was loose,” the same response Tagovailoa had given in his post-game press conference.

As reported by Albert Samaha of BuzzFeed News, “Chris Nowinski, a former college football player and founder of the advocacy group the Concussion Legacy Foundation, called on the Dolphins to keep Tagovailoa out of the next Dolphins game four days later.

“If Tua takes the field in that game, it’s a massive step back for concussion care in the NFL. If he has a second concussion that destroys his season or career, everyone involved will be sued and should lose their jobs, coaches included. We all saw it. Even they must know this isn’t right.”

But the game must go on, and Tagovailoa did indeed play that Thursday night in Cincinnati. During that game, Tagovailoa was thrown to the ground attempting to pass and again hit his head hard.

“A camera close-up captured the terrifying sight that followed: His body seized up, arms bent stiff, and fingers flexed and twisted in what medical professionals call a ‘fencing response,’ a sign of a brain injury.

“What happened to Tagovailoa seems to have violated the tacit agreement that upholds the sport’s tenuous place as America’s national pastime, an unspoken acknowledgment that while football’s danger can never be eliminated, viewers can at least trust that the most extreme risks have been mitigated.

“In 2011, thousands of retired players filed a class action lawsuit claiming the NFL was responsible for their brain injuries – the two sides reaching a $765 million settlement. Youth participation then declined for the first time in history as more parents sought to keep their kids out of the game. A growing number of players, including a few stars, announced early retirements citing concerns over health risks. But the sport withstood those years of reckoning, and today it remains as popular as it’s ever been and has grown more profitable.

“The NFL’s response to concerns over head injuries has helped it regain lost ground by showing a capacity to evolve beyond its traditional standards for violence. New rules have been adopted to reduce the game’s most brutal collisions. An independent third-party physician has been authorized to issue a diagnosis, rather than the team doctors, who had previously been in charge of the decision and might feel the pressure to keep a player in the game.”

It is unclear if all the proper protocols were followed regarding the two head injuries in four days suffered by Tagovailoa. What has been drawn to question in allowing him to compete is whether the current standards are strict enough to prevent players from facing unnecessary danger when returning from a previous injury.

Thankfully, local high school football is not the NFL. In this reporter’s view, over-concern has trumped any temptation to rush a player back from injury, particularly in the case of head injuries. We can appreciate the norms are shifting and that a head injury now draws a more urgent concern that was once reserved only for broken bones and torn ligaments.