HomeSportsConcussions, race-norming, and safety in the NFL: Do all brains matter?

Concussions, race-norming, and safety in the NFL: Do all brains matter?


Tua Tagovailoa is carted off the field after a horrendous head injury on Thursday.

Tua Tagovailoa is carted off the field after a horrendous head injury on Thursday.
Photo: Getty Images

During every NFL broadcast, you can be certain that you’ll hear about a player’s IQ or the genius of a coach or coordinator. This league values smarts — just not brains.

What happened to Tua Tagovailoa is the talk of the NFL, as people are “concerned” about his health, as it seems like he endured multiple concussions in a span of a few days. The Miami Dolphins have said otherwise — despite the NFLPA stepping in to fire the neurologist who initially cleared Tua. But words from Dolphins executives can’t erase what we saw happen to their young quarterback against the Bills and Bengals.

“The joint NFL-NFLPA investigation into the application of the Concussion Protocol involving Miami Dolphins’ quarterback Tua Tagovailoa remains ongoing. Therefore, we have not made any conclusions about medical errors or protocol violations,” the NFL and NFLPA wrote in a joint statement.

“The NFL and the NFLPA agree that modifications to the Concussion Protocol are needed to enhance player safety. The NFLPA’s Mackey-White Health & Safety Committee and the NFL’s Head Neck and Spine Committee have already begun conversations around the use of the term ‘Gross Motor Instability’ and we anticipate changes to the protocol being made in the coming days based on what has been learned thus far in the review process.

The NFL and NFLPA share a strong appreciation for the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants who contribute their time and expertise to our game solely to advance player safety. This program has made our game safer for the athletes who play it for the past twelve seasons.”

The words in that statement have good intentions, but they’re meaningless until things change on, and off, the field, especially given what’s already taken place.

In August, the families of former Black players won a decade-long fight with the league as the NFL has to pay millions for not properly compensating them for the concussions they sustained while playing. It was revealed that a disgusting practice called “race-norming” — which assumed that Black players and white players did not have the same intellect, due to a racist belief that Black people have lower cognitive levels than white people — was used as a disqualifier.

“In 2022, how can you possibly think that another human being comes out of the womb with less cognitive ability?” Ken Jenkins, a former Washington player who petitioned the federal judge overseeing the settlement, told the Associated Press. “It’s just impossible to believe that that can be true,” Jenkins declared. “It’s unspeakable.”

With a history like that, it’s hard to believe that the powers that be are actually serious about protecting brains. But, as easy as it is to make the league and these teams the bad guys, others are at blame here — like players and fans.

As much as some of us claim that there needs to be people in place who will save players from themselves, it’s also on the players to put themselves in a position to be saved. We’ll never know if Tagovailoa had second thoughts about taking the field last Thursday. But what we do know is that he chose to put those pads on. That feeling of “why do so many football players risk so much for a game?” was intensified when the Cardinals’ J.J. Watt took to social media on Sunday morning to announce that he was going to play despite having his heart shocked back into rhythm earlier in the week.

Americans are addicted to football. It’s a part of this country’s DNA and has become our drug. Because despite how bad we know it can be, we still refuse to “get clean” or turn the TV off. Last year, According to Sports Business Journal, NFL games made up 75 of the 100 most-watched TV programs, as no other pro sports league in America cracked the Top 100. As much of a lightning rod that politics has become in this country, it couldn’t even compete with football. The Biden/Harris Inauguration, watered down due to the events of January 6th, came in at seventh on the list behind a combination of NFL playoff games and a Thanksgiving matchup between the Raiders and Cowboys. Joe Biden’s address to Congress was able to sneak into the Top 20 as it came in at 17th sandwiched between AFC Wild-Card games.

Football is crack and America is a country full of baseheads.

Earlier this year, the NFL decided it would stop making draft prospects take the Wonderlic Test at the NFL Combine. For years, it was thought to be a good way for teams to test a player’s intelligence, especially quarterbacks. But in actuality, it felt like a racially-biased exam used as a tool against Black players. Teams are using other methods now, like the Athletic Intelligence Quotient or the Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style.

Only the NFL would jump through these kinds of useless hoops.

This is a league that will spend unlimited money, time, and energy to understand how a player’s mind works, while at the same time, let what happened to Tua Tagovailoa take place while injured and hurt players are tweeting their “thoughts and prayers” just before they take the field for practices and games that they should probably sit out. And sadly enough, we’ll be right there watching each Sunday. 


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