Every week during the pandemic, there has been an issue that’s emblematic of the political wrangling that ignores the medical data. This week’s edition is the media narrative that it’s just too dangerous to allow college athletes to play football this season. Can any of that be supported by the medical data we have? Let’s dig in.
The Media Narrative on the College Football Season
These were the recent headlines this week:
- Delay of game? College football emerges as the coronavirus flashpoint-The Hill
- ‘It’s a F—— Mess’-How and Why Football Conferences Are Arriving at Opposing Medical Conclusions-Sports Illustrated
- The South won’t give up on college football. Even if it kills us.-The Washington Post
As you can plainly see, the media narrative is clear. Allowing college football players to play is dangerous and irresponsible.
Which Conferences Have Reacted So Far
The Big 10 and the PAC 12 conferences have canceled their fall college football seasons and state that they want to play in the spring. However, few college fans believe that will happen. Many like me believe that this is just a way for these conferences to kick the can down the road.
The ACC and SEC have stated, thus far, that they are holding their seasons in the fall, albeit delayed by 1-3 weeks to allow teams to get organized. This sets up an interesting dynamic, almost like the political divide on corona itself. The west coast and midwest against the south and the southeast.
What is the Risk of Death Due to COVID-19?
In short, the risk of dying from coronavirus for college players is infinitesimal. First, let’s compare it to the risk of dying from something that we all know is extremely rare. In fact, so rare, that worrying about it at all would fit the definition of a treatable medical anxiety disorder. The lifetime risk of dying from a lightning strike. What are the odds? 1 in 180,746 (1). Now let’s calculate the risk of a college football player dying due to COVID-19.
Here is the risk of a Division 1 college football player dying of COVID-19:
- There are 12,650 NCAA Division 1 football players (2)
- Average ages 18-22
- To date, 225 people of that age have died of COVID out of 16,353 deaths due to all causes (NOT COVID)
- That CDC death count represents the 5 months from March to August, so it’s roughly equivalent to the length of a college football season
- There were 11.06 million males between the ages of 20 and 24-years-old in the United States in 2019 (4).
Hence, if we take a bit more than half of the 225 number to adjust for male deaths that means that there the odds are 1 in 95,652 of a college football player dying of COVID-19 during the season. Hence, the risk is about double the lifetime risk of being struck by lightning. Or said another way, without taking any precautions that the ACC and SEC will take, it’s very unlikely that a single college football player will die of COVID-19 during the season.
How Likely Is it for a Collge Football Player to Die of Other Causes During the Season?
If you look at the annual report of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research which has been tracking direct and indirect college football deaths since the 1930s, we would expect to lose 1-3 players this year due to things like heat stroke or congenital heart problems (5). In addition, every college football fan knows that we also lose several D1 players a year to car accidents, shootings at parties, and other things. In fact, according to the CDC, we lost 8,625 kids aged 15-24 to “Unintentional Injury” in 2018 (car crashes, shootings, stupid high-risk injuries) (6). Hence, it is MUCH more likely that a college player would die due to something else during the season than COVID. In fact, based on the CDC data, 73X more likely.
Could there Be Other Risks?
The media has been reporting on COVID-19 related “myocarditis”. What’s that? Myocarditis means inflammation of the heart. The Big 10 reported 5 athletes out of almost 9.000 total that were diagnosed with this condition. However, it’s critical to note that 5% of all people who have any run of the mill respiratory virus will have heart muscle involvement, with most not knowing it (7). Meaning, acute viral myocarditis was a thing” LONG before COVID appeared.
Hence, if someone has myocarditis and tests positive for COVID-19, the other possible causes include medications, cocaine, IBD, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms. In fact, most experts are unsure if there is such a thing as COVID-19 myocarditis (8,10). Why? You would have to biopsy the heart muscle and find a significant amount of the SARS-Cov2 virus in the heart, not just run a blood test or nasal swab for the virus. Hence there is no hard data that COVID-19 caused the myocarditis seen in the 5 student-athletes from the big-10.
Risks to Others?
I just returned from moving my daughter into a house near the University of Colorado with other girls. This house is on “University Hill” in Boulder, Colorado. There was no mask-wearing and several parties were already springing up on “move-in” weekend. This is despite most of the Unversity of Colorado’s classes being “on-line”. The kids I saw today are at much higher risk for COVID-19 transmission than any college football player being frequently tested and practicing in a controlled environment. Even if the players don’t play, they like all college kids will be at countless house parties with dozens of kids stuffed inside tiny apartments and houses. Hence the idea that any D1 college football player represents a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission to the elderly than the kids I saw on University Hill today is absurd.
Damage to Careers
Most college football players come from disadvantaged backgrounds. College football is their way out and up. Not playing means increasing the odds of not getting drafted to an NFL team.
The upshot? There is no medically credible reason that a college football season can’t be played. However, it will be interesting to see if yet again, the COVID media narrative can pulverize the actual medical science to strong-arm the remaining college football conferences into submission.
(1) National Safety Council. Injury Facts. Preventable Deaths. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/all-injuries/preventable-death-overview/odds-of-dying/ Accessed 8/15/20
(2) Shmoop. Odds of Getting In. https://www.shmoop.com/careers/football-player/odds-of-getting-in.html#:~:text=There%20are%20115%20colleges%20with,on%20a%20Division%20I%20team. Accessed 8/15/20.
(3) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Provisional COVID-19 Death Counts by Sex, Age, and State. https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Provisional-COVID-19-Death-Counts-by-Sex-Age-and-S/9bhg-hcku Accessed 8/12/20
(4) Statistica. Resident population of the United States by sex and age as of July 1, 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/241488/population-of-the-us-by-sex-and-age/ Accessed 8/15/20
(5) National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. ANNUAL SURVEY OF FOOTBALL INJURY RESEARCH-1931 – 2017. https://nccsir.unc.edu/files/2013/10/Annual-Football-2017-Fatalities-FINAL.pdf Accessed 8/15/20.
(6) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Leading Causes of Death, United States 2018, All Races, Males. https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcause.html Accessed 8/15/20.
(7) Dennert R, Crijns HJ, Heymans S. Acute viral myocarditis. Eur Heart J. 2008;29(17):2073-2082. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehn296
(8) Ozieranski K, Tyminska A, Caforio ALP. Clinically suspected myocarditis in the course of coronavirus infection. Eur Heart J. 2020;41(22):2118-2119. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehaa353
(9) Dennert R, Crijns HJ, Heymans S. Acute viral myocarditis. Eur Heart J. 2008;29(17):2073-2082. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehn296
(10) USA Today. Wolverineswire. U-M cardiologist questions Big Ten season postponement, calls myocarditis study ‘flawed’. https://wolverineswire.usatoday.com/2020/08/15/michigan-football-big-ten-2020-season-coronavirus-myocarditis-cardiologist/ Accessed 8/15/20