Last season, Cal reclaimed the Axe for the first time in a decade, but the Bears will have to wait at least until 2021 for a chance to protect it. Although the Pac-12’s decision to postpone was undoubtedly disappointing to the Cal community, it was made in the interests of the players’, coaches’ and staff members’ health and safety.
But despite the Pac-12 and Big Ten delaying fall sports, including football, to the spring, the ACC, SEC and Big 12 are all moving forward with modified fall football seasons and, in doing so, are indisputably putting the health of players and staff at risk.
Concerns erupted after the director of athletic medicine at Big Ten standout Penn State reported that 30% to 35% of those who had tested positive for the coronavirus had developed myocarditis — heart inflammation that causes the heart to work harder and can result in cardiac arrest with exertion. The physician, who misspoke, later walked back on that claim, confirming that no Penn State athletes have been found to have myocarditis.
But the Penn State doctor’s mishap didn’t come from absolutely nowhere. A study, which is yet to be published, by Dr. Curt Daniels, the director of sports cardiology at Ohio State, found that nearly 15% of college athletes who had tested positive for COVID-19 had developed myocarditis. Daniels noted that almost all of these athletes had experienced mild or no symptoms when infected with the disease, essentially throwing a wrench into the notion that all young, healthy individuals are guaranteed a full and complete recovery should they become infected with the disease.
Thus, while the Penn State clarification may have removed an added layer of worry from the picture, Daniels’ study reporting 15% of athletes developing myocarditis is concerning in and of itself. The report indicates that the dangers of playing college football this fall may no longer be limited to the season but may actually extend far beyond the gridiron.
Researchers have found other long-term effects of COVID-19 in addition to myocarditis. One study found that in patients who had recovered from COVID-19, 87% reported persistence of at least one symptom, often fatigue, dyspnea or joint pain, about 60 days after the onset of symptoms. Although most long-term studies have been conducted using data from patients older than the average college athlete and several examine patients who had been hospitalized, Daniels’ study on the heart and COVID-19 was specific to college athletes, providing reason to believe that athletes may still experience some of the other long-term impacts reported in older populations, especially as they relate to heart and respiratory issues.
The literature has its limitations but cannot be dismissed as the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have seemingly done. Perhaps the largest limitation of the research is the lack of it — we don’t know exactly how student-athletes will be affected now or in the future because it is, after all, a novel coronavirus. But instead of viewing the gaping hole in our understanding of COVID-19 — which Daniels’ study is filling in some part — with cautious scrutiny, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 seem to be viewing the void with blind optimism.
What’s perhaps most baffling about the SEC’s, ACC’s and Big 12’s decisions to play are the Pac-12’s and Big Ten’s decisions not to play — how could evidence-based guidance by health experts drive two Power Five conferences to postpone all sports but not do the same in the other three? All are threatened by the same disease, all have some schools located in urban settings and all are concerned with the same sport at the end of the day.
Ultimately, the decision to play is a reckless one. College football does not operate in a bubble, and the SEC, ACC and Big 12 commissioners are putting not only their players but also their communities at unnecessary risk. If there’s reasoning for the public not to gather in large groups, the same reasoning ought to apply to groups on a turf field.