In Shrugging Off COVID Heart Complications, NCAA Has Gravely Failed Its Athletes

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As the long-term toll of coronavirus becomes clear, the NCAA’s annual title game is looking less likely by the day.
As the long-term toll of coronavirus becomes clear, the NCAA’s annual title game is looking less likely by the day.
Photo: Getty

The spring crawled into summer and the heat, combined with a global pandemic, has put all of our lives, including the lives of athletes, at a standstill. Many schools started having COVID-19 breakouts in the middle of the spring and the prognosis has only become more dire, with more and more schools reporting breakouts on campus. Some have even quarantined entire programs due to rampant transmission of the virus among players and team personnel.

Just months removed from that first outbreak, NCAA Division I college football is facing a decision. Slowly, as its governing body learns of the lingering effects left by COVID-19 — with which infected athletes are already struggling — they are interested.

One of the enduring side effects discovered recently is myocarditis — inflammation of the heart and reduced lung capacity — which has jeopardized the health of at least five Big Ten athletes, according to ESPN. The report added that at least a dozen more cases have been confirmed across NCAA Power 5 schools.


“No one knows who’s going to have the hard, really bad symptoms and bad outcomes of coronavirus. Young people are dying from the coronavirus every day,” Dr. Cato Lorenzen, a UConn medical doctor and professor, told me last month.

In June, the only known long-term effects of COVID-19 diagnosis were blood clots, multi-system syndrome, and encephalitis found in children. Lorenzen elaborated on this finding, warning everyone to prepare for unknown symptoms and outcomes to surface as residual effects of contracting the virus.

“We don’t know how it operates in terms of the path of physiology in terms of causing long-term disease,” Lorenzen said. “We know what we know, but we don’t know what we don’t know in terms of the consequences of this virus.”

No matter where they fit into the age spectrum, Black people in particular have a higher risk of developing heart disease than whites. This was true even pre-COVID.


In a November 2017 study by the American Heart Association, entitled Cardiovascular Health in African Americans, researchers found that Black Americans were four and a half times more likely to suffer a stroke and twice as likely to experience both heart failure and peripheral artery disease, a narrowing of the peripheral arteries, due to hypertension or heart disease.

If myocarditis is left undiagnosed or untreated it can lead to cardiac arrest. Heart issues connected to coronavirus have turned up in at least 50 percent of all cases in the U.S. and in 80 percent of hospitalized patients. Twenty-seven year-old Red Sox ace Eduardo Rodriguez was shut down last week after testing positive for COVID-19 and receiving a myocarditis diagnosis that has pushed his MLB future into question.


While still uncommon, myocarditis has been linked more closely COVID-19 virus has been linked with myocarditis with a higher frequency than other viruses, based on limited studies and anecdotal evidence since the beginning of the year.

After learning that myocarditis has latched on to a number of athletes’ cardiac muscles in the Big Ten, the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS conference to postpone fall sports. The Big Ten last week voted 12-2 against playing football, and on Tuesday the conference announced it would call off fall sports across the board. The Pac-12 has also decided on a full shutdown for fall athletics.


Unfortunately for the athletes that have caught this virus, if they suffer from myocarditis, they’ll need to manage the heart inflammation the rest of their lives. They will not have the cushion of university-sponsored health insurance. Instead they will be left to languish in a desert of medical uncertainty and healthcare bills.


There is no other way of putting it: This is a travesty. One that most certainly could have been preventable.


“There is no clear predictor for young people in terms of who will do better or worse with coronavirus,” Lorenzen emphasized.

It is not everyday that we are scrolling through our news and media feeds watching the long-term destruction of this virus, but for the NCAA to absorb this critical new information and fail to apply a critical eye (that, frankly was needed when the first collegiate athlete got the virus) is callous at best.


I understand the monetary repercussions of all of this: No spring practice, no summer practice, now bleeding into no fall practice and the start to the season. Don’t get me wrong, I get it, but we’re trying to have a fall sports season, for what? And at what risk?

One hundred and sixty-five thousand Americans are dead in less than 6 months from COVID-19. There is not a need for entertainment or distraction. As uncomfortable as it might be, Americans need to sit with themselves (especially the ones who are the loudest crowd for sports coming back i.e. the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his enablers) and reflect on their behavior over the last 6 months. Are they fighting against wearing a mask? Are they being respectful of physical distance?


I hope we’ve officially left in the mud the occupant of the White House and his words: “Many of those cases of young people would heal in a day. They have the sniffles, and we put it down as a test.” Like many of the things that come out his mouth, foolish.

Years ago, basketball stars Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis died of myocarditis.

By the time college football has recognized the true severity of this virus, athletes will be left to pick up the pieces of a future that at this point is not certain.