Big Ten, Pac-12 cancel fall sports seasons

Mike Vorel The Seattle
Times (TNS)
A Michigan State University Football player walks back to his car at Spartan Stadium following practice on the campus in East Lansing on Monday, August 10, 2020. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have cancelled their 2020 college football seasons.

It's over.

For now.

Eleven days after the Pac-12 Conference introduced a 10-game, conference-only fall football schedule for the 2020 season, that season has been postponed, according to a report by Stadium's Brett McMurphy.

The Big Ten also voted to postpone its fall sports season on Tuesday. The Mid-American and Mountain West Conferences opted to cancel their fall seasons in the last three days as well. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC are currently moving forward with a fall football season.

The Pac-12 vote comes one day after the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board presented a document to commissioner Larry Scott recommending Pac-12 programs "stop contact and competitive activities" until each institution can meet a set of mandatory criteria, University of Utah and Utah Jazz team physician Dr. Dave Petron told ESPN Radio 700 in Salt Lake City on Monday evening. The criteria hinges on the availability of point-of-care COVID-19 testing that would allow institutions to receive results within 24 hours. It also includes access to a complete cardiac evaluation, ability to isolate and quarantine positive cases and adequate health care capacity in the local community.

"Ideally, if we can test somebody within 24 hours of competition and the tests all week have been negative and that test the same day of competition is negative, really the risk of spreading the virus is essentially zero," Petron said. "The people that are playing (would not be) infected by the virus. But the testing has to be ramped up significantly from where we are right now."

On Tuesday, Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel tweeted that "Pac-12 coaches and ADs got a sobering medical perspective from a group of Pac-12 doctors last night. Source called it 'eye opening' and the information on myocarditis 'made it real.'"

ESPN published a story on Monday afternoon that stated that myocarditis - a rare heart inflammation that could be linked to COVID-19 - has been found in at least five Big Ten athletes as well as several athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of the athletes' medical care.

Dr. Jonathan Drezner - director of the UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology and a UW team physician - gave voice to those concerns in a phone interview with The Times on Monday night.

"We're hearing from colleagues at other Power Five institutions who are finding cases of myocarditis in their athletes who had asymptomatic or mild (COVID-19) infections," said Drezner, who represents UW on the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board. "It has really raised a concern within the medical community that there's just a lot of unanswered questions that we need to learn more about as we think about sports."

According to Drezner - the team physician for UW men's basketball, track and field and cross-country, who also works with the Seattle Seahawks and OL Reign - myocarditis is responsible for roughly 9 percent of sudden cardiac deaths in college athletes. It can also cause rapid or abnormal heart rhythms or scar tissue in the heart. It is typically caused by a viral infection, including those associated with the common cold, H1N1 influenza or mononucleosis.

As for cardiac evaluations at UW, any athlete who tests positive for COVID-19 receives an electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure electric signals in the heart, a troponin test to gauge proteins in the blood and a heart ultrasound. If any of those tests are abnormal they administer a cardiac MRI, "which is harder to get and certainly uses more resources" according to Drezner but also most accurately identifies myocarditis and other heart conditions.

Drezner is working with Dr. Kim Harmon at UW and Harvard cardiologist Dr. Aaron Baggish to launch a study that will help determine the severity of the link between COVID-19 and myocarditis. But until that information is available, Pac-12 football may stay on the sidelines.

"Everybody really wants to know, 'Well, what is the risk? What's the prevalence of myocarditis from COVID-19 in young competitive athletes?' That's a question that we don't have an answer for right now," Drezner said. "But we do know that concerns from the hospitalized patients and some of what we're hearing from reports from institutions is that COVID-19 affects the heart more so than other viruses. So it has our caution flag up."

But, apparently, not for everybody. There continues to be discussion surrounding the viability of a fall college football season, even in the medical community. Dr. Cameron Wolfe - an infectious disease specialist at Duke and chair of the ACC's medical advisory team - told Sports Business Daily on Tuesday that he believes football can be played (relatively) safely.

"You have to feel some level of comfortable playing in a non-zero risk environment," wolfe acknowledged. "You can't tell me that running onto a football field is supposed to be a zero-risk environment. Look at all of the regular sporting injuries that we accept as a certain level of risk as part and parcel of football. Now the reality is that we have to accept a little bit of COVID risk to be a part of that."

Mayo Clinic Dr. Michael J. Ackerman also cautioned against conferences using cardiac links as justification to cancel college football. In a tweet, Ackerman referenced a JAMA Cardiology study from last month that showed that from a group of 100 recovering COVID-19 patients, "60 percent had evidence of active myocardial inflammation."

"If #medical experts for the Pac-12 and Big 10 #CollegeFootball conferences are using the very good @JAMACardio paper on cardiac MRI findings in #COVID19 patients as compelling for cancellation, that is a big FOUL. The data does NOT support this at all! #WeWantToPlay #RefuseToFear," Ackerman tweeted.

Politicians have also been outspoken on the issue of college football's immediate future. President Donald Trump repeatedly tweeted that the sport should be played on Monday, and reiterated that belief in an interview on Fox Sports Radio on Tuesday morning.

"These football players are very young, strong people," Trump said. Physically they're in extraordinary shape. So they're not going to have a problem. You're not going to see people ... could there be? Could it happen? But I doubt it. You're not going to see people dying."

Later, the president added: "I think football's making a tragic mistake."

Still, the Pac-12 and Big Ten's decisions may also prevent unnecessary tragedies.