This is What Happens When You Keep Playing

Keyontae Johnson’s story mirrors the way the sports world has responded to COVID

They kept playing.

It’s eerie how Keyontae Johnson’s story mirrors the way the sports world as a whole has responded to COVID-19. They watched the absolute worst happen — in Johnson’s case, right in front of their eyes, as he spontaneously collapsed on Florida State University’s basketball court after throwing down a dunk. According to the Associated Press, the Gator star “suddenly fell forward and landed on his face…his eyes were open and he had blood on his face and neck.” He was taken off the court in a stretcher. 

University of Florida coach Mike White left the choice up to his players; they decided the best course of action was to keep playing. What else could they really have done? It’s what all those motivational posters about grit, determination and toughness are all about, or something. (The team postponed its next game, meant to be played on Wednesday, Dec. 16.)

It’s essentially the way the NCAA and its member schools have approached the pandemic, relying on the rationale that athletes want to play. If they didn’t, as the NCAA and its water-carriers remind us repeatedly, they could have opted out of the season — a technicality that glosses over the fact that college athletes are some of the world’s most finely tuned yes-men, and that many of them have everything to lose if they are perceived to be anything less than 110% dedicated to their craft. 

College athletes, once they commit, have almost no leverage. They have even less when they decide to go pro — hence the need to constantly flaunt superhuman dedication and discipline. Never mind how opting out of a season might affect your draft stock or future playing time — just look at how players who express (completely justifiable) nervousness about getting sick are treated by their coaches.

“We’ve had five or six missed practices just based on, ‘Coach, I’ve got a headache. Coach, I’ve got a runny nose and a sore throat.’ Then the next day they test negative, feel a lot better and you bring them back,” White told reporters back in November, after the team had to postpone its first game of the season because of positive COVID tests. “It’s not COVID related. Last year they would have practiced. You add that to the equation and it makes for a lot of missed practices, a lot of missed time, lack of continuity.” 

It’s impossible to ignore the subtext: he thinks his players are being weak, and is concerned about the impact on their game — not their well-being. Quitters never win and winners never quit. First one in the building, last one to leave, pandemic be damned. 

The logistics of taking responsibility, of not letting them stay on the court, of making the safer and more sensitive choice, would be more complicated and less profitable. Isn’t that always the way it is to do the right thing: more complicated and less profitable.

We don’t know why Keyontae Johnson collapsed; thankfully we do know that after spending a few days in critical condition, he is stable and breathing on his own according to a statement from his parents. We also know that Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 this summer, as did most of his teammates — just a few of the at least 6,629 college athletes that have tested positive for the virus so far this year, according to a new report from the New York Times. 

But after all, they’re kids, and they’ll just get over it and be fine, right? At least, that’s what college sports fans and staff are telling themselves. The truth is we don’t have a full picture of COVID’s long term effects; what we do know is that there are plenty, and they can be very serious. Myocarditis, a heart condition that causes sudden cardiac arrest, is one. 

It’s still early in the college basketball season. There is no way of knowing how many players will still contract the virus and suffer potentially life-threatening side effects as a result; the numbers that we do have, though, look bleak. Players, eager to please their coaches and do all the work that makes them so extraordinary, will continue to push through and play anyway; Johnson, for example, opted out of the 2020 NBA draft to play another season at Florida, citing the perennial “unfinished business.” Just last week he was projected to go in the first round of the 2021 NBA draft; now, it’s unclear the next time he’ll suit up. 

We know that those are the stakes, and so do the people with the power to stop all sports competition — those who could look at the over 300,000 dead and say, “You know what? We don’t want anyone else to die from this virus, so we’re going to encourage our athletes, staff and fans to stay home and be safe.” But they won’t, as we’ve already seen over and over again. 

They’ll just keep playing.

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