Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa gets bad advice on CTE risk, expert says

The Palm Beach Post

April 21, 2023

Tua Tagovailoa said he decided against retirement after being told by specialists that CTE “wasn’t going to be a problem.”

A leading expert on brain trauma warns that might not be the case.

Tagovailoa, the Dolphins’ starting quarterback, spoke at the team’s facility Wednesday in conjunction with the offseason training program. To no one’s surprise, most of the discussion centered on his health since he suffered at least two concussions last season, including one that kept him out of the final three games. He agreed that neurologists believe there’s no added risk of concussions given he has the full offseason to recover.

“They also told me that CTE wasn’t going to be a problem,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s only when you’re constantly hitting your head against something.”

Boynton Beach’s Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which along with Boston University has detected CTE in the brains of hundreds of deceased athletes, went on Twitter late Wednesday to voice his concern about the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

“If this is what Tua Tagovailoa was told, he is being completely misled,” Nowinski wrote.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and those subjected to repeated brain trauma, including concussions. It can be definitively diagnosed only after a patient dies. Former Dolphins who had the disease include Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick.

Given the seriousness of concussions, Tagovailoa said he considered retirement.

“I considered it for a time, having sat down with my family, having sat down with my wife and having those kinds of conversations,” he said.

Earl Morrall proof that quarterbacks also get CTE

Tagovailoa cited several reasons for continuing to play: his age (25), his love of the game and that he’s a quarterback.

“I think that (CTE risk) tailors more towards linebackers, O-linemen, D-linemen, guys that are constantly going at it,” Tagovailoa said. “That also played into the fact of my decision-making and wanting to come back and play.”

Nowinski disagreed.

“QBs get #CTE too,” he wrote.

That’s undeniable. For proof, Tagovailoa need look no further than his own organization. Earl Morrall, hero of the 1972 undefeated Dolphins after starting quarterback Bob Griese was injured, died at age 79 in 2014. Morrall was then diagnosed with CTE by doctors at Boston University.

“Dad deteriorated pretty badly the last couple of years of his life,” Morrall’s son, Matt, told The Post in 2016. “It was a pretty dramatic changeover for him. He’d always been very athletic and outgoing, and as part of the process, he went from about 235-240 pounds to about 158 pounds. He had difficulty swallowing, difficulty communicating and talking. He was wheelchair-bound probably the last three to six months of his life.

“And it was obviously horrific to watch that happen.”

Former college and pro football TV reporter Jill Arrington also used Twitter to question the medical advice Tagovailoa received. She recommended he speak to researchers at Boston University about CTE.

“Misinformation at its best!” Arrington wrote. “My dad was an NFL QB & died w/ stage 4 CTE! Tua should worry more about being there for his son’s future, than his son seeing him play prolonging exposure to a progressive brain disease. I implore Tua to talk to @bu_cte for expertise on actual CTE risk.”

Arrington, who attended the University of Miami, is the daughter of Rick Arrington, a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles for three seasons who died at age 74 in 2021.

Speaking at a Concussion Legacy event early this year, Arrington said she doesn’t enjoy watching football anymore.

“When I see players’ heads collide on the field, I see my dad’s face begging me through tears to end his misery,” she said at the event, according to U.S. News & World Report. “I see the strongest man I have ever known struggle to sleep for months on end … and unable to make a simple cellphone call.”

Jay Cutler fears ‘CTE is coming’ for him

Today’s NFL quarterbacks don’t take anywhere near the hits that were allowed when Morrall and Arrington played. They wear red, noncontact jerseys in practice. Pass rushers aren’t allowed to hit them high (in the head) or low (knees). Even with those protections, there is an ex-Dolphins quarterback from the modern era (2017) whose plight paints a concerning picture.

In an interview with GQ in 2021, Jay Cutler detailed issues he’s having. They’re the result, he believes, of “double-digit” concussions during his 12-year NFL career.

“I would say definitely my memory isn’t the same as it was five years ago,” Cutler said. “The amount of concussions I’ve had are probably in the double digits. It’s gonna catch up to me at some point. I’m just trying to delay it as much as possible.”

A month prior, Cutler told Barstool Sports, “CTE is coming.”

Last week, the NFL and NFL Players Association announced the approval of the first quarterback-specific helmet, made by Vicis, designed to protect against concussions. The league said about half of the concussions suffered by quarterbacks occur when heads hit the ground. That was the case when Tagovailoa was knocked out of a game against the Bengals last season.

Tagovailoa has taken up jiujitsu in an effort to protect himself when he falls.

“You think it’s easy — just don’t fall and hit your head — but I mean, there’s a lot more to it,” he said.

Nowinski, who played football for Harvard, made it clear that despite safeguards, there will always be a risk associated with the game.

#CTE has a dose-response relationship with head impacts, so even if QB risk is less, it’s not zero. Plus, let’s be frank: Tua, and every other NFL player, may already have CTE from youth, HS, and college play. We need to be honest about this.

“While it is true that NFL QB’s are more protected than ever and don’t take hits in practice, they still run the ball, get sacked, and get hit. I’d feel better if Tua had true informed consent as he returns, and wish him the best.”

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