College football officials are concerned about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on their athletes, especially how it takes a toll on the heart. Officials are so concerned that some conferences, including two of the Power 5, have postponed their seasons for the foreseeable future, leading fans to worry if college football will happen in 2020 after all. Numerous players suffering from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, after COVID-19 have worried the entire industry.
ESPN reported that at least five Big 10 Conference athletes and several athletes from other conferences have developed myocarditis after getting COVID-19.
In response, multiple sports conferences announced they would postpone their seasons. In September, Penn State’s director of athletic medicine, Wayne Sebastianelli, said that about one-third of Big Ten conference athletes who have been infected with COVID-19 had been stricken with myocarditis. The school later clarified that comment, saying that no Penn State athletes had been diagnosed with the heart condition and that Sebastianelli had only been discussing preliminary data.
The Mid-American Conference was the first FBS conference to postpone fall sports. The Big Ten and PAC-12 conferences followed suit on Aug. 11, marking the first major football conferences to postpone their fall season, CNN reported.
“It became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren told CNN. “Everyone associated with the Big Ten Conference and its member institutions is committed to getting everyone back to competition as soon as it is safe to do so.”
So far, the rest of the Power 5 conferences—the Big 12, SEC, and ACC—either still plan to have a 2020 season or haven’t yet decided.
Healthline reported that although COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory virus, many patients have begun to show heart-related symptoms even months after recovering from the coronavirus.
Football officials are specifically concerned about myocarditis. According to Sports Illustrated, myocarditis symptoms include “chest pain, abnormal heartbeat, shortness of breath and, in the most serious case, sudden death.”
But doctors are still discovering the vast ways COVID-19 affects the heart. Science Mag explains that the virus “ravages the heart in multiple ways.”
“Direct invasion of heart cells can damage or destroy them,” the magazine explained. “Massive inflammation can affect cardiac function. The virus can blunt the function of ACE2 receptors, which normally help protect heart cells and degrade angiotensin II, a hormone that increases blood pressure.”
ESPN noted that heart-related side effects of COVID-19 began to receive national attention after the mother of Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney made a viral Facebook post about her son’s experience with extensive coronavirus symptoms.
“Unfortunately this virus hit my son very hard compared to most of his teammates. Here was a kid in perfect health, great physical condition and due to the virus ended up going to the ER because of breathing issues,” she wrote. “After 14 days of hell battling the horrible virus, his school did additional testing on all those that were positive. My son even received extra tests because he was one of the worst cases. Now we are dealing with possible heart issues! He is still experiencing additional symptoms and his blood work is indicating additional problems. Bottom line, even if your son’s schools do everything right to protect them, they CAN’T PROTECT THEM!!”‘
Feeney is not alone in experiencing heart issues after COVID-19. Other athletes experiencing heart-related COVID-19 symptoms include University of Houston defensive lineman Sedrick Williams and Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez.
Dr. John MacKnight, the head primary care team physician at the University of Virginia, told ESPN that “long-term cardiac concerns for athletes may be the tipping point” for whether to cancel fall sports.
“We are collectively, as a sports nation, not quite ready to feel entirely comfortable with what that may look like for our young people down the line, and we are not going to put them in that situation,” MacKnight said.
A sweeping college football cancelation in 2020 would have a monumental impact on the industry. For senior athletes who planned to pursue football professionally, they wouldn’t have a final season to prove their abilities. It could harm universities as a whole, too: Many higher education institutions rely on football to fund other sports, recruit new students, and attract big donors.