On Dec. 12, I sat down to watch a few minutes of men’s college basketball — one of the few activities that allows me an escape from the tumult caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, if only for a moment. The game on TV was the Florida Gators facing the Florida State Seminoles.
Four minutes into the game, University of Florida small forward and SEC Men’s Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson was on a fast break with his teammate Tyree Appleby. Johnson pushed the floor and passed the ball up to Appleby, who lobbed it back to Johnson, who finished off the alley-oop. The two University of Florida Gators left their Florida State Seminoles opponent helpless as the bucket gave Florida an 11-3 lead over its in-state rivals.
This play forced Florida State Head Coach Leonard Hamilton to call a timeout. When the game returned from a commercial break, Johnson was surrounded by medical personnel.
Johnson had collapsed after the University of Florida men’s basketball team broke its huddle.
Thankfully, doctors and medical professionals were able to respond to Johnson’s collapse quickly. Following two days in a medically induced coma, it appears he will make a full recovery.
In the hours after Johnson’s collapse, the Associated Press reported Johnson and most of his teammates had tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer. I immediately recalled several studies suggesting inflammation of the heart may be one long-term side effect of COVID-19. I decided to look into the possibility of a connection between Johnson’s collapse and his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Over a week after the event, reports revealed Johnson was diagnosed with acute myocarditis, or inflammation of the cardiac muscle.
At this time, however, medical professionals say there are too many unknowns about what led to Johnson’s collapse to connect it to his bout of COVID-19.
I spoke with Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology and co-director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Program at Atlantic Health System and Morristown Medical Center, about cardiac complications related to COVID-19.
“We should … recognize that just because one had COVID doesn’t mean [one] had a complication from it, even if it is a very adverse event,” Martinez said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
“Boy, we were nervous. Now, we are realizing that the vast majority of folks do not have cardiac involvement and do quite well,” Martinez said.
Ultimately, speculating about a potential connection is an exercise that distracts fans and the media from the main problem: college basketball should not still be happening in the middle of a pandemic.
COVID-19 Raging Out of Control
The day Johnson collapsed on the floor of the arena, the COVID Tracking Project reported that the seven-day moving averages of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths were all at their highest points of the pandemic yet.
These numbers should be enough to put a halt to events with as high a risk of transmission as travel college basketball.
Professional sports were shut down in the spring because of the risk of spreading the virus.
Here at Georgetown University, the women’s basketball team has already seen at least one positive case of COVID-19 within the program, forcing the cancellation or postponement of its first seven games. The women’s team finally began its season Dec. 19 against DePaul.
Meanswhile, the men’s team has played eight games this season, with many schedule adjustments because of COVID-19.
A Georgetown University spokesperson acknowledged concern for protecting against the spread of COVID-19.
“Our decisions around athletics are, and will continue to be, driven by public health conditions and our responsibility to keep our community safe, including local and national infection rates,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College Dr. Kathleen Bachynski agrees with this data-driven approach.
“The biggest public health factor in all of this is what’s the level of community transmission,” Bachynski said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Where Bachynski disagrees with Georgetown, however, is the assessment that conditions in the Washington, D.C. area indicate that playing college basketball is safe.
As of Dec, 31, the District had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 6.5%.
Continuing to play college basketball in these conditions goes against the World Health Organization’s recommendations, according to Dr. Bachynski.
“The World Health Organization recommends 5% test positivity as sort of the bare minimum before you start to reopen things,” Bachynski said. Even though D.C. has crept below 5%, Bachynski said the number is still too high for college basketball. “That’s when you can start thinking about reopening our top social priorities such as K-5 schooling,” she said.
D.C. has the lowest positivity rate of any city that is home to a Big East school. Five of the 11 Big East schools are in cities with positivity rates above 10%. Fellow Big East school Creighton University had a positivity rate of 26.3% as of Dec. 26.
As Georgetown men’s and women’s basketball teams begin to play away games, the two teams will be in regions where it is unsafe to do most activities, let alone college basketball, according to Dr. Bachynski.
“The above 5% to me is much too high to be thinking about something like travel sports,” Bachynski said.
Failure to Protect Students
The high risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 on the basketball court should be concerning enough. Universities and individuals need to be doing everything they can to avoid getting — and spreading — COVID-19.
Dr. Carolyn Barber is a retired emergency medicine physician who spent 25 years working at hospitals across the country, including at the University of California, San Diego.
Barber mentioned the importance of following health recommendations from the CDC and public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci when transmission is as high as it is nationwide.
“It just seems to me that playing indoor basketball kind of defies pretty much all of those recommendations,” Barber said. “I don’t really know how you can be much closer to someone.”
Almost 130 of the 350 men’s basketball programs nationwide have had at least one case of COVID-19, according to daily reporting done by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports and information aggregated by The Hoya.
The Houston Cougars men’s basketball team has had a widespread outbreak as all 15 players have contracted COVID-19.
The top-ranked teams in the latest AP Poll, Baylor and Gonzaga, have also had cases on their rosters. Positive tests within Gonzaga’s program led to the cancellation of the highly anticipated matchup between the two teams Dec. 5.
The list of teams with players who have gotten COVID-19 goes on.
There are also many more risks to COVID-19 than the immediate infection, Barber said.
“It’s not that young people are immune from having severe consequences,” Barber said.
One of these consequences is the experience of “COVID Long-Haulers” — those who experience long-term symptoms, even months after infection.
“This really worries me about these players,” Barber said. “Even if they don’t get much COVID or significant COVID now, we don’t know what happens months later. And you go on these ‘Long COVID’ forums and people are just finding fevers, chest pain, shortness of breath and they can’t walk up the stairs without getting dizzy.”
Both Barber and Bachynski emphasize these long-term side effects can affect young people, and there is no way to predict yet who will experience these long-term symptoms.
“I can’t tell a young person, ‘I know you’ll be fine,’ because I just don’t,” Dr. Bachynski said. “I really don’t.”
Low death rates among young people with COVID-19 does not mean this population is free from COVID-related risks. Death is not the only outcome doctors are worried about, said Bachynski.
“This is not a dichotomous — either you die, or you’re perfectly fine,” Dr. Bachynski said. “There are a lot of health harms short of death that are of meaningful concern.”
COVID-19 cannot be treated like West Virginia’s vaunted press defense or Villanova’s efficient offense. COVID-19 is not just another obstacle to push through during a basketball season. It is a serious illness that should be treated as such.
A Missed Opportunity to Help the Community
In the absence of a bubble like the ones created by the WNBA and NBA, actions on Georgetown’s campus reverberate out into the D.C. community.
By continuing to host basketball games on campus, Georgetown is not doing all it can to curb the pandemic. The epidemiological risk of holding an indoor event is staggering, and holding an event of this scale sends a questionable message to the larger community.
“The failure to think about the league’s responsibility, not only to their players — although that’s obviously hugely important — but also to the broader communities, is a really big part of the story,” Bachynski said.
Barber echoed this sentiment, highlighting concern for the players and campus communities around the country.
“I think it really isn’t right for the athletes,” Barber said. “I want them to be safe. And then also just the surrounding communities — we’ve seen more outbreaks in communities where college campuses have had outbreaks.”
As someone who only retired two years ago from the same emergency rooms that are now overflowing with COVID-19 patients, Barber wanted to highlight the importance of helping frontline workers in hospitals around the country.
“I think it’s our responsibility as a society to help our frontline health care workers,” Barber said. “They are overwhelmed right now in many hospitals across America. They’re asking us to help them.”
An Opportunity to Lead
“Our top commitment is to the health of our students and community,” a Georgetown University spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
But by continuing to host and promote college basketball games, Georgetown is shirking that commitment. Hosting college basketball games sends a cultural message of normalcy that is counterproductive at best and dangerous at worst.
March 11, 2020, is the day many Americans became concerned about COVID-19, in part because Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the disease and the NBA put the remainder of its season on hold.
If an iconic basketball school such as Georgetown basketball were to pause its men’s and women’s basketball seasons, there would almost certainly be a wider cultural understanding both in the Georgetown and larger Washington, D.C. community of the gravity of the current stage of the pandemic.
Programs being willing to shut down now could be the turning point that the country needs to get through the final lap of the pandemic. Across the United States, vaccinations are beginning, with 2.1 million individuals already vaccinated and more on the way. There needs to be one ultimate push to save thousands of lives.
Georgetown needs to respond to the pandemic with the leadership that this crisis demanded months ago and stop facilitating the spread of COVID-19. Local and national governments have failed to slow the spread of COVID-19. The NCAA has made minimal effort to slow the spread. Athletic conferences have not shown leadership during the pandemic either.
Absence of leadership elsewhere does not excuse a dereliction of duty from Georgetown.
“Right now, we are in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic, and so certain things about our routines are going to have to change,” Dr. Bachynski said. “And unfortunately, sports is part of that.”