Alabama’s game against Mississippi State on Nov. 16 started much like many other Alabama games. The Crimson Tide were cruising against the Bulldogs, building an impressive and secure 35-7 lead. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had struggled with ankle issues since suffering a high-ankle sprain in a win over Tennessee on Oct. 19, but that didn’t seem to be slowing him down much. Then, on what Alabama coach Nick Saban said was going to be his final drive, Tagovailoa was hit on a throw shortly before halftime, dislocating his hip and sending shockwaves through the college football world.
The painful image of Tagovailoa, arguably the sport’s biggest star of the past two years, being carted off the field should serve as a stark reminder of the risk we put student-athletes in and underscores the need for collegiate sports to do a better job of protecting their interests.
Thankfully, it appears as though Tagovailoa will be OK. Although the quarterback will miss the rest of the season, Alabama’s team surgeon Dr. Lyle Cain said Tagovailoa is likely to make a full recovery.
But it’s worth thinking about what could have happened. As a potential first-round draft pick, Tagovailoa could soon receive a hefty paycheck. For example, Kyler Murray, the first pick of the 2019 NFL draft, was offered a contract with a signing bonus of $23,589,924, according to CBS Sports. Tagovailoa has now sprained both of his ankles and sustained a serious hip injury in less than one calendar year. And, as anyone who has watched him knows, Tagovailoa’s athleticism is an important asset to his game. In his college career, he’s totaled nine rushing touchdowns, according to Sports Reference. Injuries to his ankles and hip could reduce his athleticism and jeopardize his draft potential. In a worst-case scenario, he might not have been able to play again at all.
I won’t blame anyone for Tagovailoa’s injury. No one, of course, wants to see him hurt, and the coaching staff planned to pull him out soon. Regardless, the context is tragic. The drive in which he sustained his season-ending injury was essentially meaningless to the outcome of the game. According to ESPN, Alabama had a 99.7% chance to win at the start of the drive.
As a fan, it’s hard to reconcile this. We ask players to risk their bodies and livelihoods week in and week out with little compensation. Many receive scholarships, but the time needed to play and practice football prevents them from getting a job, limiting any financial benefit from playing. According to the NCAA, 2005-2006 Division I football players reported spending an average of almost 45 hours a week on their sport. That kind of time commitment makes it hard to do much else. Yes, some may become professional players, but not many. The NCAA says that fewer than 2% of college athletes eventually play professionally. And, as the Tagovailoa injury should remind us, even players that look like sure bets can be derailed by one devastating injury.
It’s encouraging that Tagovailoa will probably recover. But we must remember how much danger we put our favorite athletes in regularly. In an era marked by greater awareness of player safety, we must continue making strides to protect collegiate athletes’ long term interests.