Medical experts have sounded the alarm about COVID-19’s potential to cause heart damage in athletes. If a college football player develops this or another health problem after exposure linked to the sport, what are the school’s obligations to him or his family if the condition imperils a professional career, requires ongoing medical care after graduation or worse, results in the player’s death?
These grim questions show there’s more complexity to the decision to restart college football than new testing capability, cited as a game-changer in the Big Ten Conference’s Wednesday reversal on canceling the 2020 season. The risks and ramifications of putting players back on the field remain uncertain at best in an unfolding pandemic.
The safest course of action was the one that the conference, which includes the University of Minnesota, announced in August — to postpone play at least until spring 2021. The decision, which disappointed some coaches and sports fans and was criticized by President Donald Trump, made it clear that student-athletes’ health came first.
The flip-flop suggests the opposite and raises uncomfortable questions about the reality of college sports, where amateur athletes don’t share in the financial windfall generated by ticket sales and TV rights beyond their scholarships. Now, the very institutions that benefit have decided it’s OK for these athletes to run the risk of playing during a pandemic? Rarely are conflicts of interest so glaring.
The rapid-test program the conference plans to deploy on a daily basis for players also merits scrutiny. It’s a welcome step, one that should lower the risk of contracting or spreading COVID, but it won’t eliminate the risk. This test isn’t the gold standard for diagnosis that most people get when they go to a doctor’s office. Instead, the Big Ten will use what is known as an “antigen test.” It is inexpensive and results can be available in minutes. But, this testing method comes with “an increased chance of false-negative results — meaning it’s possible to be infected with the virus but have a negative result,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
The lack of consensus among experts about resuming play is also unsettling. Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, a University of Minnesota infectious disease physician, is among the critics. He noted that many college towns already have COVID positivity rates (a key metric for community spread) well beyond the 5% threshold for concern set by the World Health Organization.
Dr. Dan Diekema, a University of Iowa infectious disease expert, is also raising concerns. In an interview with NBC News, he doubted that college athletics have the same resources as pro sports to keep their players and staff in a bubble and sustain it. Diekema pointed to the disclosure this week by Louisiana State University’s head coach, who said “most of our players have caught it.”
The Big Ten’s decision also failed to pass muster with renowned medical ethicist Art Caplan of the New York University School of Medicine. Among the concerns he relayed to an editorial writer: the unanswered questions about institutional liability not only for athletes but coaches and trainers.
High school sports officials should take heed of these concerns. The Minnesota State High School League is reportedly considering whether to restart fall sports. It shouldn’t fumble this decision like the Big Ten did.