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Outcry over injuries to Miami Dolphins quarterback leads to new concussion protocols


The NFL promises that this time it really is addressing head injuries like the ones suffered by Tua Tagovailoa.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Tagovailoa - oh, boy - getting up - oh, my goodness. That's an awful, awful sight to see. They will take him to the sideline immediately.

INSKEEP: The Miami Dolphins star quarterback took a hit in a game against Buffalo. He stumbled after standing but managed to pass the concussion protocol and return to the field. Just four days later, in another game, he was carried out on a stretcher after another hard hit, and the outcry led to changes. Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation and producer of the new documentary "Behind The Shield: The Power And Politics Of The NFL," discussed this with A Martinez.


It definitely seems very clear now that Tua should not have been playing in that second game. Tell us about the new protocols, and do they go far enough?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, the new protocols are pretty basic. I mean, now, if a player exhibits symptoms of what's known as ataxia - meaning stumbling, not having equilibrium - that automatically is one of the checklists on the concussion protocols. Now, I don't know about you, but I was really surprised that that was not already part of the concussion protocols, if a person is stumbling and can't keep their balance. So does it go far enough? I mean, it does not go far enough, but that speaks to one of the fundamental problems. It's impossible for it to go far enough because these kinds of injuries are so baked into the cake of this sport.

MARTÍNEZ: And the thing about it is the average NFL career lasts three years, just a little over three years. That's according to the players union. So what does it say about how the league views the long-term health of its players, that it takes this long and seemingly something this striking to make some kind of change?

ZIRIN: And it took bad public relations to make this kind of change. And that's something players realize, is that if it doesn't make big news, if it doesn't embarrass the NFL, there's not going to be that kind of change because one of the great tragedies of the sport is that oftentimes players are treated just like extensions of equipment. And when they're used up, they're out the door - a lot of churn and burn when it comes to the players on the field, which is why there is such a push to make upper management more diverse in the NFL, so players can have an opportunity to do more than use their bodies but can also use their minds.

MARTÍNEZ: And speaking of that diversity, many of the players are young men of color. In your view, this fact has made a difference in how concussions have been handled by the league.

ZIRIN: Well, we know this, that they recently had this case around what's known as race norming, which is a huge topic, but that the NFL does - no longer practices, but race norming meant that Black players were having a tougher time getting a piece of the NFL's mass concussion settlement with players because their cognitive testing was deemed as low because of how people of color traditionally perform on these kinds of tests. I mean, it was racist. It was an outrage. And the NFL, when it got the bad publicity, said, oh, we disavow it entirely. But it - for a lot of players, I got to tell you, it spoke to a larger concern that as young Black men, their lives are seen as expendable, while management is a step away from even understanding the perilous nature of that reality.

MARTÍNEZ: Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, thanks a lot, Dave.

ZIRIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.