Horse racing and college and professional football are sports in which injuries to athletes are often severe.  Also in common between the two sports is how the world reacts when a horrific injury occurs in front of a nationally televised event. 

Before elaborating, here is a recap of the injuries suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in two NFL games that provoked a firestorm of controversy and widespread second-guessing. The first game was on Sunday September 25, 2022 and the second four days later on Thursday night.

In the Sunday night game against the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa hit his head on the turf after being tackled.  Dazed, he rose on his own power, then stumbled and nearly fell.  He went to the sideline, where he went through the NFL concussion protocol.  A physician cleared him to return to the game, and the head coach promptly put the quarterback back in.

Between the Sunday and Thursday games, the Dolphins listed Tagavailoa as having a back injury rather than being observed for a possible concussion.  Then on Thursday night he was again cleared to play and started against the Cincinnati Bengals.  On a tackle by a Bengals lineman, Tagovailoa was whiplashed to the ground and hit his head.  He left the playing field on a stretcher.

The outcry from the sports media and social media was immediate and somewhat reminiscent of the visceral reactions to the death of Eight Belles due to an injury suffered in the Kentucky Derby. In both instances, there were lots of finger-pointing and Monday-morning quarterbacking.

The accused culprits in letting Tagovailoa play were the Dolphins head coach, medical personnel, and the NFL. The Players Association fired an independent doctor who cleared Tagovailoa to play. The NFL Players Association and the NFL promised investigations (this always seems to be the case).

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the Dolphins mistreatment of Tagovailoa was ”astonishing” and the worst he has seen in 40 years of coaching. The NFL Players Association threatened legal action against the Dolphins and its team doctors.

Sponsors of sports invite and deserve harsh criticism whenever an athlete is injured and it turns out that safety protocols may have been compromised or that doping was involved.  In the case of horse racing, for example, a trainer may have run a horse with borderline lameness and it broke down or a track veterinarian was complicit by letting such a horse run. 

In the wake of the Tagovailoa injuries, there was considerable talk of the danger of playing on artificial turf.  The Bengals stadium has this surface, overlaid on concrete, rather than natural grass.  This is similar to the outpouring of criticism and anger about Santa Anita’s turf courses a couple of years ago when numerous horses died while racing on them.

A commentator on the Tagovailoa situation stated the obvious truth: safety measures can reduce injuries, but violent outcomes cannot be eradicated from a violent sport.  Another predicted that there would be no NFL in 50 years because of the physical and cognitive damage done to players that they frequently carry all their lives, as well as the fact that concerned parents increasingly are dissuading their boys from playing football.

Many of us won’t be around to find out if the prediction about the demise of pro football comes close to being correct. However, I do know now that sports in which athletes are at risk of life and limb—football, horse racing, boxing, auto racing, rugby, and others—can, deserved or not, expect to receive a hail of criticism and outrage whenever a severe injury occurs on a national telecast, especially if negligence is suspected. The strategic question for the longer term is whether a sport can answer with continually improving safety measures that assuage concerns of athletes and the public. 

(The view here is that an injured Tagovailoa should not have been put back into the Sunday night Buffalo game and it was also ill-advised to play him only four nights later against the Bengals.) 

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