The Corner

Sports

Myocarditis Changes the Level of Risk for Playing a College-Football Season

Doug Andrews points to an article I wrote last month and contends that the major college-football conferences are making a terrible mistake by either canceling their upcoming seasons or postponing them until spring.

But football, being a collision sport, has always been fraught with risk. Its players are well aware of these risks, though, and for more than a century, boys and young men have donned the gear and gotten after each other with abandon. They do it because they love this quintessentially American sport — and because the rest of us love it, too.

Let’s not be sissies about this. That’s for those on the Left. Kudos to the Big 12, the ACC, and the SEC for listening to the players and the coaches, and for honoring their love for the game and their commitment to it.

Let’s play some football this fall.

I thought this assessment from David Chao, the former team doctor for the San Diego Chargers, at Outkick the Coverage was excellent, imaging a debate between the Big Ten conference (which canceled their season) and the SEC (which, as of this writing, is going ahead with theirs). The short version is that the risk of coronavirus complications from myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle — is small but cannot be hand-waved away. Left undiagnosed and untreated, myocarditis can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal. (Reportedly, at least five athletes at Big Ten programs have been diagnosed with myocarditis.) A person with myocarditis will not necessarily have a cardiac arrest if he catches the coronavirus but is at risk of it; doctors are still trying to fully understand how the coronavirus can affect the heart.

Because of so many factors that universities, athletic directors, coaches, and players cannot control, playing a season could end with no players experiencing any serious or lingering health issues from the coronavirus. Or, God forbid, one or more players could drop dead from a cardiac arrest. It all depends upon how thoroughly the precautions are followed, how frequently and extensively the players are tested — Chao mentions “cardiac screening that will include EKG, echocardiogram, enzyme (troponin) testing and even cardiac MRI” — and luck. Just one player going to a party could set of a dreadful series of dominoes.

Perhaps diagnostic tests for potential myocarditis should become standard for student-athletes from here on out.

Some players will have no risk of long-term health effects and be asymptomatic, perhaps the vast majority of them. Football players are indeed used to living with risk — of sprained knees, broken bones, torn ACLs, and concussions and their long-term effects. But the onset of cardiac arrest and sudden death is a different level of risk, and it’s difficult to begrudge any student-athlete, coach, athletic director, university president, or conference director who looks at the situation and concludes the fatal consequence makes the reward just not worth the risk.

The expectation is that a vaccine will be arriving at the end of this year and early next year, so the situation in the spring could be better. But playing two college football seasons in one calendar year — spring and autumn — would bring its own problems, including potential risk of injury, wear and tear on players, and the top players opting out to prepare for the NFL draft.

Still, considering the colossal financial implications of canceling or postponing the season, and the extraordinary amount of disappointment and frustration that this decision will generate among student-athletes, coaches, and fans, it is unlikely that these conferences are reaching these decisions simply because they’re “sissies.”

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