COVID-19 Grips College Football As Players Battle Heart Problems

Football programs that have chosen to play this fall are now challenged.

Traivon Leonard was ready to take to the gridiron this fall for his senior year as a defensive back for the Auburn Tigers, but the impact of coronavirus spurred a decision that changed everything for him.
“I first started thinking about opting out when I got really sick on that third or fourth day,” Leonard, 23, an Interdisciplinary Studies major, told “I started to think and talk to my mom about it, there were days I couldn’t even breathe. I said if it lingers, I wouldn’t be able to work out or condition. It really came down to that.”

Leonard, who also lives with asthma, announced in an Instagram post in August that he would be opting out of the 2020 football season for the AP ranked No. 15 Tigers because of his diagnosis. He’s one of now dozens of college football players who are now either benched or who have ended their playing careers because of the effects of the virus.

According to 24/7 Sports, Auburn has not reported any new coronavirus cases since mid-September, when 10 diagnoses caused 10 players to miss practice for a couple of weeks. But they were able to return before the school’s opening game against Kentucky. Leonard, however, did not play because of his opt-out choice.


Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been fear of how it might affect college athletics and whether or not entire seasons would be cancelled in order to prevent its spread. While some conferences, like the MAC, the SWAC and the MEAC are among at least two dozen, have chosen not to put players on football fields, other conferences including the SEC, the Big-10 and the ACC have moved forward.
But now with recent reports of multiple players at Louisiana State University and the University of Florida and of legendary Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban being diagnosed with the disease, many are looking twice at what effect the pandemic is having on college athletics.
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The Florida Gators and LSU Tigers, both SEC schools, were scheduled to play on Saturday (Oct. 19), but that game has been postponed because of the effect COVID-19 is having on both teams. Travez Moore, a senior linebacker for LSU tweeted in August what he went through when he contracted COVID-19 and made clear the effect it can have.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron told reporters in September that most of his players have contracted and recovered from COVID-19. Those players who are recovered do not have to be tested again for 90 days under SEC rules and he believes they should remain eligible for playing.
"I think, not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it," Orgeron said in a video press conference. "I think, hopefully, that once you catch it, you don't get it again. I'm not a doctor. I think they have that 90-day window, so most of the players that have caught it, we do feel like they'll be eligible for games.

"So we look at the players that have caught it and say, 'OK these guys should be eligible,' " he continued. “We look at the players who haven't caught it; we talk to them about being very, very careful so they're eligible for games."


Dr. Keri Denay, an assistant professor and director of the sports medicine fellowship at the University of Michigan, says there many concerning factors when it comes to how coronavirus affects most people, let alone college football players. But they are exposed to possibly more risk.

“Football players tend to live in close quarters with everyone,” she told “The nature of the game puts them in close contact so the six-foot distance is probably not sufficient in that situation, those are the things that make this so incredibly difficult.”
But she said that although people in sports medicine differ in their points of view as things evolve, the officials running college sports are faced with making a difficult choice now that major programs are being confronted with this issue in the middle of the season, up to and including postponement.
“I don’t know that it can be a decision across the board from the NCAA,” Denay said. “It may be conference by conference or maybe school by school. Another thing is that things change day to day, so we have to continually keep our guard up and reassess the situation and see if we need to make changes.”
There have been growing concerns about how COVID-19 could affect the heart, which is of particular worry in college sports because of an affliction called myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can be caused by infections like coronavirus. Dr. Mitchell Elkind, president of the American Heart Association said although there’s not necessarily anything that makes college athletes like football players more likely to get the affliction, it can still be worrisome.
Sports Illustrated reported that myocarditis cases in college football are not many, the possible damage that can be done on players is significant. Even without coronavirus, the affliction accounts for 2-5 percent of all sudden deaths in U.S. sports. At least one college football player had an enlarged heart after contracting the disease.

The NCAA has not discussed the number of players with myocarditis brought on by COVID-19, but individual conferences are beginning to notice that it is present. According to The Athletic, the Big-10 conference knows of at least 10 players who are afflicted with myocarditis, and Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology for Atlantic Health System told ESPN that he has received calls from major college football programs describing more than a dozen athletes with heart injuries from myocarditis.
The condition is something that doctors are keeping a closer eye on in student athletes, but it is unclear because how it might affect someone who is as fit as a young football player would be different than someone who is not in the same shape. It is something the AHA is monitoring, though.


Leonard said that he had some initial concern about myocarditis, but only dealt with breathing problems. “They did some tests and took it to the lab and got the results and said I was fine,” he said. “I had some heart pain, but it wasn’t severe, it was mostly my lungs.”
“What’s happening now is athletic programs are looking more closely for it.,” said Elkind, who is also a Columbia University professor of neurology and epidemiology, to “The thing now is that we’re having more tests. In studies where they look at a couple hundred people who are young and have no history of poor health,  when they look at heart scans, that's where we've seen these cases come up.
“When programs hear of this and test their athletes through cardiac tests, they’re more likely to find these abnormalities. The thing that I think people are most concerned about is that if they do exercise, at a high level like sprinting, it might not affect the weekend jogger but if you’re playing football will it affect you, so that’s something we are worried about.”
For Leonard, opting out meant his final year playing would not materialize and he has decided to focus on graduating in the spring. He feels Auburn did a lot to try to prevent the spread of the disease, but there was only so much the school could do, including regular testing, but he also feels the administration could have waited longer to bring students back.
“You got kids who are getting the virus and they're not doing too well, after the fact,” he said. “They should have just pushed it back more or canceled the whole thing and we wouldn't be in this spot.”
As for his own situation, Leonard says that with his opt-out, that means his football career is over. He has been into music for the past two years and he also wants to focus on graduating this spring.

“I came to a realization that I’m done with football,” he said. “I’ve got the opportunity to opt out and just get my education.”

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