Keyontae Johnson, the Florida Gators forward who collapsed during a Dec. 12 game against Florida State and was put into a medically induced coma upon arriving at a Tallahassee hospital, has been diagnosed with acute myocarditis. This inflammation of the heart is most frequently caused by viral infections. Johnson, the SEC's preseason player of the year, had COVID-19 earlier this year, though it is not known if the two are connected. So consider that important caveat as we fly deeper into the dark mine, canaries in our own right, completely incapable of knowing what the future holds next week, let alone next year.
What if Johnson's scare is a wake-up call that won't be answered? What if it's a preview into an unpredictable sports hell that will manifest over the next several years? What if he's not an outlier? What if an influx of COVID-related health complications turn sports into deadly or near-deadly endeavors for the foreseeable future?
To be clear, I am not a medical expert, though I've spent more time than I'd have cared to spend hooked up to various machines, exercising to see the impact on my own heart. After then-Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis died suddenly in 1993, my childhood medical issue went from mildly concerning to panicky. Running around outside or playing football during recess would occasionally leave me lightheaded and dizzy. Breathing would become more shallow and the anxiety of focusing on heart rhythm would only exacerbate the situation.
Several appointments and specialists later, I was diagnosed with aortic regurgitation, which essentially means one of the valves doesn't close tightly enough during contraction. It is a more mild case and, thankfully, in 25 years has not worsened nor prevented physical activity, including basketball.
Yet it still rears its head from time to time. The fear of giving into the dizziness and never waking up is something I've learned to deal with, but isn't pleasant.
Lewis' original autopsy revealed he'd previously had myocarditis. His case was shrouded in controversy within the medical community. The unknown was scary then and it's scary now. One doesn't want to overreact.
At the same time there's some common sense conclusions to give pause. My health history has caused me to be extra careful during the pandemic because even a layman understands that stacking heart conditions is bad news. Widespread and anecdotal evidence about reduced ability to breathe during physical activity post-COVID is readily available.
What we don't know, however, and will only know with time, is just how precipitous the jump in heart conditions will be in the general population. It stands to reason that there will be an explosion of some scale as the documented cases of the virus rise and the undocumented multiple by a factor of two or three or whatever that may be.
How many athletes are going to develop abnormalities? What percentage will be detected proactively? What will that mean for their future endeavors as they try to navigate through a risk-assessment exercise with the most dire of stakes?
And imagine if premature retirements are the best-case scenario. Because the worst is scores of Keyontae Johnsons, going from vibrance to fighting for their lives in a split-second, not all of them winning the battle. Myocarditis already accounts for an outsized percentage of sudden death on the seemingly young and healthy. What happens when athletes push their bodies and their most precious organ past the brink?
Imagining this future is petrifying. And, once again, I've tried to lay out the biases that have caused me to entertain such a science-fiction scenario. But again, our level of certainty, our mooring in reality, and our medical understanding have never been challenged like this. Think of what we know about the virus now that we didn't six months ago. Not all of it is good. Some of it is worse than expected.
So it's not entirely impossible that the next decade of our lives will bring with it a string of sports tragedies with the seeds planted during this hellish year. If that nightmare becomes a reality and tragedy a trend, how do we react? The leagues, players, and fans will all have tough ethical questions to answer and rearview mirrors to gaze into.
But make no mistake. There doesn't need to be another Keyontae Johnson for us to have this conversation and peer into the cloudy crystal ball. Surely smarter, less scarred, and less scared people than I have more answers to the potential challenges that lay ahead.