The league’s mishandling of Tua Tagovailoa’s recent concussion has begun an important dialogue with the NFL proposing changes that could go into effect as soon as this week, including a more stringent protocol preventing players who have exhibited “gross motor instability” from reentering a game. Citing his own experiences, former NFL quarterback Alex Smith knows exactly what Tua is going through and why he may have downplayed symptoms in order to get back on the field.
“Watching Thursday was hard. It was tragic,” Smith expressed to Pablo Torre on ESPN Daily. “You know there have been so many measures that have been put in place over the last 20 years and clearly, they failed in this moment.”
The concussion protocol’s fatal flaw is that it requires players to be honest about symptoms they’re experiencing. Scarred by the memory of losing his starting job to Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, Smith recalls doing whatever he could to pass a concussion test, refusing to show that he was “compromised” in any way.
“I was Tua. I was the No. 1 pick, had this tumultuous first 5-6 years of my career. Really struggling to shed the bust label. Just carried a lot of weight as the No. 1 overall pick as a young kid. Dealing with that kind of pressure to perform, meeting expectations and [wanting] validation,” said Smith. “[Tagovailoa] bid his time those first few years. It was dysfunctional and all this talk about trading for other quarterbacks. And here he is and he’s shining and he’s got his moment. You want to take advantage of it. You don’t want to let it slip through your fingers.”
In a perfect world, players would voluntarily sit themselves after an injury like Tagovailoa’s. Unfortunately, that’s not how athletes are wired, particularly in a sport that glorifies toughness, with physical sacrifice seen as the ultimate currency. That warrior mentality is why J.J. Watt, despite having his heart defibrillated days earlier, saw his usual workload Sunday, logging 41 snaps at Carolina.
“As a quarterback, sometimes you try to take pride, you take a good hit and you try to jump up and let them know you’re okay,” said Smith, who readily acknowledges deceiving independent neurologists throughout his career. “Without a doubt, I withheld. You’re not telling the full truth.”
Lost in the Tua discourse is an obvious question that no one seems to be asking—what actually constitutes a concussion? As Smith explains, diagnosing a concussion isn’t as cut and dry as you might think.
“It would be kind of like if you looked at the sun for a little while and you tried to blink this off, but it’s not going away. I’m still in the huddle calling plays at this point. Still playing, thinking this thing will go away,” said Smith, recalling a concussion that affected his vision during a game, but not enough for him to consider leaving the huddle for medical attention. “I never was like knocked out or anything. I remember everything, very clearheaded. It’s really a visual thing at this point. It’s so bright, it’s really kind of affecting my focus. We’re driving down the field and they blitz me, they sent the house. I throw this little dump pass to [Michael] Crabtree on a hot route and he scores a touchdown. I don’t know how it happened.”
Brain injuries aren’t a one size fits all proposition, existing on a spectrum with various degrees of severity. Similarly, the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant responsible for clearing Tua isn’t the only one at fault for Thursday’s debacle in Cincinnati, a regrettable incident the NFL can and must learn from. Even fans have to do their part, changing football’s culture of toxic masculinity that pushes players to such physical extremes, putting their safety and lives at risk for our entertainment.