Tua Tagovailoa’s NFL future has to be up to him

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I never want to see Tua Tagovailoa on a football field again. My wish is that he announces his retirement soon, following this latest concussion. And with his loving, and expanding, family by his side, I hope he’ll say something like how he wants to watch his little boy grow up, that they’ll all live happily ever after back in Hawaii, just like he promised his grandfather .

I’d prefer this option — Tua standing upright, then walking away — rather than a continuation of the reel of horrifying scenes we’ve witnessed over the past four years. His hip out of place and his nose bloodied and broken while being carted away as a college quarterback. The back of his head slammed against the grass, stumbling with wobbly legs this season as the Miami Dolphins starter. Then, only four days later, his fingers twisted and bent in a grotesque fashion, his brain and body responding to another vicious hit.

He should leave the game while he can. It seems like a lot of us agree on this matter – wanting the best for Tua, and believing that we know what’s best for him.

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So, from our keyboards, we have broadcast our diagnoses for his latest head trauma, as well as our plans for his future. The words “tua” and “retirement” have gained traction on Twitter. Analysts inside TV studios have offered the Dolphins and Tagovailoa, their franchise quarterback selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft, definitive next steps. This week, former NFL player Emmanuel Acho, preaching while staring into an FS1 camera, even tried to speak directly to Tagovailoa.

“Tua, you are the only one that lives inside your own head,” Acho said. “Tua, we cannot care about your health more than you do. Your friends can’t. Your family can’t. The NFL won’t, and your team can’t. So at this moment, I make the appeal to Tua to prioritize your health, prioritize your safety, prioritize your well-being.”

The debate over Tagovailoa’s health is yet another reminder of the thorny transactions between the athlete in the arena and the fan on the couch. We invest our time, money and passion into our favorite games, and the people playing them, and in exchange we believe we deserve a bit of ownership. Our opinions rule.

On Sundays, everyone’s an expert, questioning a coach when he goes for it on fourth down — then tar-and-feathering him when he doesn’t. Every other day of the week, we still make our voices heard, even on matters away from the field and inside other people’s lives.

We have made it our place to lecture athletes about their behavior: How he tweets or how he vents, how he celebrates or how he protests. But even when the loud admonitions come from a more pure place — like wanting to protect a young man, who along with his wife recently welcomed a child into this world — it doesn’t make the moralizing less complicated.

There’s a belief that our opinions should count when it comes to Tua’s personal agency over his body and his career, that we somehow know what’s best for him. But why? Simply because we cringed when a Buffalo Bills defender threw Tagovailoa down like a doll that’s lost its stuffing, and we prefer not to feel that uncomfortable again while enjoying our entertainment? Or because we scrolled a few tweets on a neuroscientist’s timeline or read a couple of lines of an article about head injuries, and now feel informed enough to share our medical expertise?

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The tricky part is, we’re right. Tagovailoa’s future is more important than the Dolphins’ playoff hopes. And even without a medical degree, the general public knows enough about the mysteries and dangers of concussions, and how multiple head injuries can lead to long-term problems. But if Tagovailoa, who will not play Sunday against the New England Patriots, decides to rest this week, then clears the concussion protocol and reports back under center again this season, we may flinch, but should still respect his decision.

Football remains a violent sport often played by volunteers. Tagovailoa is just one of the millions who raised his hand and rushed into the sport’s clutches. And he has kept coming back.

In his documentary, “Tua,” he casually recalled the November 2019 injury he suffered while the star quarterback for Alabama. Although ‘Bama led by 28 points, Tagovailoa was still on the field in the third quarter against Mississippi State when he was pressured out of the pocket and crushed by two tacklers.

“I couldn’t tell what was going on. I think my body was just in so much shock that I can’t recall what was going on at the time,” Tagovailoa said.

Since then, he has emerged as one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. We’ve watched him blossom this year, with a mastermind coach in his ear and athletic receivers in his huddle. But we’ve also seen the blows. So many brutal ones that Tagovailoa has become the pained and dazed face of NFL concussions. Every time he’s out there and takes another hit, we wonder why he’s still playing.

I never want to see Tua Tagovailoa play football again. It would be great if he chooses to live a happy and healthy life, far removed from any more head trauma. But I’m trying to remind myself that his autonomy over his career matters more than my opinion. While I might hope that Tua walks away under his own power, he should be empowered to walk his own path.

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