Is it safe to play college football or not?
We just do not know, was the loud answer given Tuesday by the Big Ten Conference, the reason for suspending all league fall sports competition.
“We just believed collectively, there’s too much uncertainty,” said Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren.
Let’s state this plainly. This was the right call. A depressing call, a bleak day at Penn State and Ohio State and Michigan and Rutgers and the rest, no doubt. Even amidst an outcry of protest from their own coaches -- and even if they lose transfers to another Power 5 league that doesn’t shut down -- Big Ten presidents just did the right thing.
When some medical experts are talking about concerns about how much COVID-19 could lead to myocarditis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the heart muscle, you have to listen, especially when liability issues are in play.
Everyone is watching everything, but myocarditis was an immediate topic Tuesday on the Big Ten Network as soon as the news became official, with the Pac-12 quickly making the same move.
Every league in the NCAA saw the news over the weekend that a 27-year-old basketball player, a former Florida State player named Michael Ojo, had collapsed and died during training in Serbia on Friday.
The initial media report was that Ojo had suffered a heart attack. He also reportedly had tested positive for COVID-19, and had recovered from it.
Was this myocarditis? Was Ojo’s death related to COVID-19? Nobody knows. But it wasn’t a surprise that the Big Ten, in particular, took it most seriously. It’s fair to wonder if the Big Ten really jumped on this path to slow down after the mother of an Indiana University freshman offensive lineman took to Facebook to explain that her son, 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, had tested positive for coronavirus and might have heart issues.
Might have? We’ll see. We’ll find out. The data will come in. Taking this all seriously is a reasonable path. The Centers for Disease Control said having a body mass index of 30 or higher “increases your risk of severe illness from COVID-19.” That’s virtually every offensive lineman on every Power 5 team.
“We have very strong, serious concerns about the potential for COVID to affect athletes cardiovascularly,” Michael Emery, co-director of the sports cardiology department at the Cleveland Clinic, told The Washington Post. “When you look at COVID in general, there seems to be a higher predilection for involvement with the heart than about any other virus we’ve seen.”
So that’s it? No football until everyone is safely vaccinated? No, the NBA and WNBA and MLS are showing that bubbles have been effective.
I talked this week to Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg, who is studying this whole issue closely.
“My view is there should not be college football,” Bachynski said. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen so far this summer that we don’t have the capability of having sports that aren’t in the bubble.”
She added, “There’s just no feasible way, either practically or ethically, to create a bubble for college students.”
Maybe there is a practical way to do it, but not without immense planning. The Big Ten will explore this, whether games can be played in the spring. Expect bubble scenarios to be looked at closely.
One of her primary concerns, Bachynski said, is the perception that young people being asymptomatic means there is no risk.
“It’s definitely not zero,” Bachynski said of that risk.
She pointed to Major League Baseball and despite all attempts to use safe practices, there still have been shutdowns, and medical issues, including a Boston Red Sox pitcher sidelined by heart issues.
“I’m sort of worried that athletes have been treated kind of as guinea pigs and we’ve already seen where this has failed,” Bachynski said of outbreaks in some football programs.
Beyond that, others are being put at risk. “Nurses have to treat them directly -- I think that’s a major ethical concern,” Bachynski said.
Bachynski went to the University of Michigan for undergraduate and graduate school. She wasn’t a big football fan, was more likely to be at the library, she said, than Michigan Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. “I would occasionally go to the hockey games,” she said. But she’d played sports, had her own soccer career ended by multiple torn knee ligaments. She understands there are risks involved in sports.
This shutdown happened earlier than they would have liked, said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith Tuesday on the Big Ten Network, but the league’s medical professionals “helped us understand that we needed to do what we did today.”
“The science began to become real,” Smith said. “The long-term effects, we just don’t know. This is a virus we don’t have data on. … We thought it was important to respect that.”
A reminder that NCAA Division II and III and most FCS football is shut down. Connecticut, shut out of the Power 5, already shut down, without outcry. The majority of college football already was not playing.
Let’s assume the outcry from Big Ten coaches partly was because not all leagues are automatically going along with this, that competitive advantage could be lost. You get that issue, it’s a real one, but it can’t carry the day.
“They’re people first,” Warren said of Big Ten athletes. “They’re not professionals.”