When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, many want to focus on how many people have died from the virus. I’m not trying to downplay anything, 186,000 deaths (as of 9/3) isn’t something to ignore. But while many focus on the deaths, there isn’t as much attention placed on those who survive but develop complications, which could differ among each person and be life threatening on their own. Not everyone develops complications and it’s difficult to determine how many have developed these side effects but a Penn State doctor revealed some findings among Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 and that might be a reason why the conference is looking to postpone the college football season.
According to the Centre Daily Times, Penn State director of athletic medicine, Wayne Sebastianelli told a State College Area school board of directors meeting that “30 to roughly 35 percent” of (symptomatic and asymptomatic) Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 developed a condition called myocarditis. Myocarditis is “an inflammation of the heart muscle that can be fatal if left unchecked.”
Just like COVID-19, most people may survive myocarditis but the complications from having myocarditis may affect people in a variety of ways. No one wants to have a condition that inflames the heart but myocarditis can be especially concerning for athletes, who need to have their heart and lungs at their best to have a high VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption).
“You could have a very high-level athlete who’s got a very superior VO2 max and cardiac output who gets infected with COVID and can drop his or her VO2 max and cardiac output just by 10 percent, and that could make them go from elite status to average status,” Sebastianelli said. “We don’t know that. We don’t know how long that’s going to last. What we have seen is when people have been studied with cardiac MRI scans — symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID infections — is a level of inflammation in cardiac muscle that just is alarming.”
Now we’re getting into a worrying territory for pro athletes and collegiate athletes looking to have a pro career. Many people may not be worried about dying from COVID-19 but potentially getting it and developing a condition that hurts their performance as an athlete, testing positive for COVID-19 might mean lower performance and potentially less money on their next contract.
A few weeks ago, the Big Ten decided to postpone their fall sports. Along with the Pac-12, they are the only two Power Five conferences to announce they were postponing their sports. Since then, the Big Ten was considering beginning their football season on Thanksgiving weekend but at the insistence of President Donald Trump, the conference is now in discussion to possibly start the season on October 10.
The Big Ten is caught in the middle of a political firestorm and despite the belief that resuming the season was “on the one yard line,” its members have mostly been for postponing the season. It remains to be seen exactly when (or if) the Big Ten plays football but it seems they are taking an approach that looks past who lives and dies and considers the well-being of those who survive COVID-19 and the potentially life-altering side effects that could happen to them.
UPDATE: Dr. Sebastianelli apologized and clarified his initial statements of “30 to roughly 35 percent” of Big Ten athletes who had COVID-19 developed myocarditis. In a statement to Kyle Bonagura at ESPN, It said, “During his discussion with board members, [Sebastianelli] recalled initial preliminary data that had been verbally shared by a colleague on a forthcoming study, which unbeknownst to him at the time had been published at a lower rate.” In addition, it was revealed that there has been no one at Penn State who developed myocarditis.