On November 25, the 2020-21 NCAA Division I men’s college basketball season kicked off. The season was only delayed by a couple of weeks due to the pandemic, but COVID-19 determined a few other changes to the season.
For example, exhibitions and scrimmages were cut, and teams could play no more than 27 regular-season games.
March Madness was planned to go on as usual.
Teams were using caution to prevent outbreaks, and it seemed like all the boxes had been checked for a safe and successful season to proceed.
But, as usual, COVID had other plans.
As in many other sports this year, coronavirus infections derailed numerous game schedules and sent some teams into quarantine. Even more troubling, however, were the health effects that players seemed to start experiencing even after recovering from their initial COVID-19 infection.
Now, some are wondering whether the season should continue at all.
Should college basketball be put on pause due to the pandemic?
Let’s take a closer look at the latest news about COVID’s toll on the sport to see what will ultimately go into this decision.
Keyontae Johnson’s Shocking Collapse on the Court
Perhaps the biggest event contributing to the conversation around college basketball is Keyontae Johnson’s mid-game collapse on December 12. The University of Florida junior and star forward was playing in a matchup against Florida State, but suddenly collapsed facedown just a few minutes into the game. He had just stepped back onto the court after a timeout when he went down.
After being taken off the court on a stretcher, Johnson remained in critical but stable condition and spent three days in a medically induced coma. After 10 days in the hospital, he returned home. He’s expected to take a break from playing for at least three months to continue his recovery, meaning that he’ll likely miss the rest of the season. For now, he’s planning to help out in a coaching and scouting role for his team.
Was this a one-off health scare? As it turns out, Johnson’s collapse might be connected to the COVID-19 infection that he had over the summer. An MRI during his hospital stay revealed a diagnosis of acute myocarditis, which has been linked to COVID.
Myocarditis and COVID: Should Athletes Be Worried?
It’s not clear whether COVID was the trigger for Keyontae Johnson’s myocarditis.
Other athletes without a COVID history have had developed myocarditis, which can be caused by a number of different viral infections. However, it’s certainly worth questioning a possible link considering his relatively recent COVID infection.
According to one small study at the Ohio State University, 15 percent of college athletes infected with COVID-19 showed evidence of myocarditis. The implications could be fatally serious; the Myocarditis Foundation reports that 22 percent of sudden cardiac deaths in athletes ages 35 and younger are caused by myocarditis.
That’s a terrifying prospect not only for Johnson, who was projected to win all-SEC honors and become a possible first-round draft pick, but for all college athletes who have tested positive for COVID.
Johnson had seemingly recovered from the infection months before, and was playing normally right up until his sudden collapse. It’s something that now weighs heavily on the minds of many players, coaches, and athletic program directors.
As Kentucky coach John Calipari said the week after Johnson’s collapse:
“If it had something to do with COVID, I would say every coach in the country would like to know.”
Unfortunately, it looks like the problem isn’t isolated to the issue with Johnson. Other college players have also experienced ongoing health effects after a COVID-19 infection, including:
- Vanderbilt women’s basketball player Demi Washington, the daughter of retired NFL cornerback Dewayne Washington. The sophomore is out for the season after a diagnosis of myocarditis following a COVID infection.
- Brady Feeney, an Indiana freshman offensive lineman. He contracted COVID-19 over the summer and dealt with serious breathing and heart problems during his hospital stay. The Big Ten postponed the 2020 season shortly after his health issues came to light.
- University of Houston defensive lineman Sedrick Williams. He opted out of the 2020 season due to heart complications related to COVID-19.
- Starting safety Al Blades Jr., a junior at the University of Miami. He announced that he’d be sitting out the rest of the season after being diagnosed with myocarditis following a COVID infection.
Sadly, one former college athlete has died from heart complications after having COVID.
He was only 27 years old.
To Play or Not to Play
With growing concerns over not just the coronavirus but also the possible health effects it could unleash on players, there have been some renewed calls for a pause or cancellation of this year’s college basketball season.
Some teams have already decided to opt out for safety reasons.
The Ivy League teams, for example, decide to cancel all winter sports through at least the end of February 2021, and the Duke women’s basketball program cancelled their season in late December. A number of other college basketball games have been postponed and team activities put on pause due to positive COVID-19 cases within school programs.
So far, all the delays have happened on a team-by-team basis.
But should the whole season be called off?
That’s what some are saying in recent weeks.
On December 30, the New York Times Editorial Board published an article calling for the temporary cancellation of all college sports and accusing the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) of putting profit over public health.
They expressed particular concern for basketball players, who are especially at risk due to the high-contact style of play and indoor setting, saying, “These so-called student-athletes are being treated like essential workers, but without the benefit of pay or the opportunity to share in the profits that line the pockets of administrators, coaches, and television executives.”
Sportswriter Christine Brennan shared a similar opinion in USA Today, noting that a number of respected college basketball coaches have also expressed concerns about playing during a pandemic, including Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski and Pittsburgh men’s coach Jeff Capel. Rick Pitino, coach of the Iona men’s team, tweeted about the same topic in November:
Save the Season. Move the start back. Play league schedule and have May Madness. Spiking and protocols make it impossible to play right now.
— Rick Pitino (@RealPitino) November 14, 2020
Many of these articles call out the fact that college players are being treated like unpaid professionals. While NBA teams were able to secure themselves in a highly regulated bubble and get paid millions to play, college players are putting their health on the line without compensation. On top of that, there’s the outsized effect COVID has had on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities to take into account.
That’s where it all comes back to Keyontae Johnson.
He’s exactly the type of star player that some would claim shouldn’t be stopped from playing since it could impact his professional opportunities. But by putting his health at risk now, those pro ball possibilities could be impacted. We don’t yet know how he’ll recover from the acute myocarditis that appears to be caused by COVID, making his future a lot less certain than it was before the pandemic.
As of right now, the college basketball season is still on. Teams are postponing or delaying games as needed when the virus rears its ugly head. March Madness is scheduled to start on time, culminating in a National Championship game on April 5.
But with the pandemic raging again, particularly in states like California, and the potential for serious health effects among athletes, it seems like a significant risk to take.