The NFL Players Association Needs to Do Better

            I woke up feeling unsure the other morning. The headlines in my news feed were telling me about Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffering a severe head injury in his game the night before against the Cincinnati Bengals.

            I am a football fan. I spend my fall and winter following college and the pros. I never played the game, but I am drawn to the action and amazing athleticism. Lots of Americans seem to feel the same way about the game that I do.

            Yet its brutality leaves me with moral ambiguity about whether I should be supporting an endeavor that leads to so many catastrophic injuries.

            If you haven’t heard the story, Tua Tagovailoa came into the NFL as a can’t-miss prospect out of the University of Alabama. He struggled his first couple of years in the league but appeared to have turned a corner early this season. Last Sunday, he was pushed to the ground and landed forcibly on his head. As he got up, he staggered and fell back to the ground. It seemed apparent that he had suffered a head injury.

            The NFL, which for years has been trying to deal with the effects that concussions have had on players, has a protocol in place that would require a player who suffers a head injury to be removed from the game and placed in the so-called “concussion protocol,” that would require examination and monitoring before a return to the field.

            Three plays after Tua left Sunday’s game though, he was back on the field after doctors determined that he had not suffered a head injury. And then, just four days after that, he was under center leading the Dolphins against the defending AFC champions. In the second period he was slammed to the ground, apparently knocked unconscious, and his upper body spasmed. It was scary to see.

            The NFL and its Players Association (the union) use platitudes talking about “safety first.” But after Thursday’s debacle, how can they be believed?

            Unions play a vital role in ensuring worker safety. For years the NFL Players Association was far too lax in ensuring the safety of its members, and, as a result, thousands of former players left the game with irreversible brain injuries and orthopedic disabilities that would last a lifetime. It took uninterested third parties to bring the dangers of the game to light and lead impactful changes in how to improve equipment and modify rules for player protection.

            The union’s role in this regard must be paternalistic. Players have a main focus, guided in part by machismo ideals and a code of brotherhood, to play through every injury no matter what. It takes an overseer to ensure that the players are protected for their own good.

            Employers should carry that responsibility. And for the most part they do. But employers are guided by a profit motive and that motive will sometimes get in the way of safety concerns. It is the union’s singular obligation to protect the employee. It is a grave responsibility.

            “Safety first” is a common bromide that you will see employers promoting. It sounds good, but it is just words if there are not practices in place to ensure safety. That is where the unions come in. In this case, the union failed. It must do better.

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