Our fourth annual Football Injury Highlight Reel is taking a different tack this year. In previous years — 2017, 2018, and 2019 — we surveyed injuries to youth, high school, college, and pro football players, some quite serious and some even career- or life-ending. This year we focus on the effect Covid-19 has had on the game because in 2020 a chief health harm of football at all levels of play hasn’t been the physicality of the game itself but the coronavirus.
The spread of Covid-19 associated with contact sports ripples outward from players, staff, and fans to entire communities.
Although high school athletes are at lower risk of developing Covid-19 than the general public, high school athletes are not immune to serious outcomes from the disease.
• In Georgia, 14-year old Keyshawn Parrish was hospitalized in a pediatric intensive care unit and diagnosed with Covid-19-induced myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle — after contracting the virus. He also sustained liver damage, although he had no known underlying conditions. The Statesboro High School football player is now being closely monitored by a cardiologist and currently cannot return to sports participation.
• In Mississippi, 14-year-old Kosciusko High School football player Cam Smith was hospitalized in critical condition with Covid-19. Other students at the school also tested positive, and teacher Carolyn Stevens was hospitalized and on a ventilator. As a consequence, the school temporarily halted all extracurricular activities and moved to remote learning.
Kosciusko High illustrates the risk that Covid-19 poses to entire communities. Although limited contact tracing often makes it difficult to track down the original source of transmission, once the virus enters a school, everybody — students, teachers, coaches, staff, parents — can be affected. So many Mississippi high school football programs canceled games due to outbreaks that Mississippi Today dubbed Covid-19 “the clear winner in the 2020 Mississippi high school football championship playoffs.”
High school coaches and staff have not been spared, to tragic consequences:
• Forty-two-year-old Nacoma James, an assistant football coach at Lafayette High School in Oxford, Mississippi, died shortly after collapsing in his wife’s arms in early August. The coroner reported that James had Covid-19.
• After spending nearly a month on a ventilator, 46-year-old Charles Peterson died of Covid-19 on September 13. Described as a “big, giant teddy bear,” he was a beloved volunteer football coach at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina.
• In Tolleson, Arizona, 40-year-old assistant football and baseball coach Ash Friederich died on October 31 from Covid-19 complications. “Ash was the guy that always had a smile on his face,” one of his colleagues recalled.
• In Georgia, five head football coaches have been hospitalized for Covid-19 so far this season. The latest, Cook High School football coach Jaime Rodgers, was admitted to the hospital due to low oxygen levels on November 20. The week before, the high school cancelled its football match-up with Fitzgerald due to Covid-19, and as many as 100 students were in quarantine.
• Mark Rose, a successful high school football coach in Alabama, was so worried about the risk of developing Covid-19 that he quit his job. “I put it all on the line, but I would do it all again,” Rose said. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I wasn’t protecting my players, their families and my coaches.”
Covid-19 has also affected college football programs across the nation.
• Jamain Stephens Jr., a defensive lineman for California University of Pennsylvania, died from a blood clot in his heart after contracting Covid-19. “I’m very, very nervous for these young men and women … These kids, their lives are priceless. And it’s just not worth it,” his mother, Kelly Allen, told CBS News.
Although the vast majority of the hundreds of college football players who have contracted Covid-19 so far this year have survived, the virus has still had a lasting impact on some players.
• Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas, who had Covid-19 in the spring, said he had trouble breathing for months. He was finally cleared to play in September, although he still is not back to full strength. “I would say I’m about halfway there,” Thomas said in early November. And Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence finally returned to the field last weekend after missing a month due to Covid-19.
Yet college football games proceed — as long as Covid-19 doesn’t force a cancellation. At least 16 college games were cancelled or postponed the weekend of Nov. 21-22 because of the virus.
In the NFL, before the season started the league announced a special “Reserve/Covid-19” list for players who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. On the list for last weekend’s games alone: three San Francisco 49ers, three New York Giants, and a player each from Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Baltimore, and Cincinnati (which also had three coaches sidelined for “Covid-19 related reasons”). That’s in addition to the dozens of players already on the list, according to DraftKings Nation — and the nearly 200 players who were placed on the list before the season began and have since come off.
• Buffalo Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney developed myocarditis stemming from his bout with Covid-19 and will be out the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the league continues to issue large fines to players and teams for Covid-19-related violations such as failing to wear a mask on the sidelines or mask-less victory celebrations.
This, of course, is just a snapshot of the football-related outbreaks and their repercussions. What remains unknown, and probably unknowable, is how these infections have affected those off the field, including officials, family members, teachers, community members, media workers, and beyond. What we do know is that the country is experiencing a devastating surge in cases and fatalities. Ed Yong wrote that the University of Nebraska Medical Center is struggling with the surge of outbreaks “not because of any one super-spreading event, but because of the cumulative toll of millions of bad decisions.”
Count this year’s football seasons at all levels, from on-field activities to fan festivities, among those decisions.
Finally, although Covid seems to have overshadowed the concern for the broken bones, smashed kidneys, punctured lungs, and concussed heads that football causes, these injuries have not abated. Pro Football Reference has hundreds of players on its “Current NFL Injuries” list as of Nov. 20, including 23 concussions, more than 100 knee injuries, Drew Brees’s 11 broken ribs and collapsed lung, and, of, course 70+ players out for “personal” reasons, many — if not most — of those presumably being for fear of contracting Covid.
• College football has seen season-ending ankle injuries for Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and Georgia’s Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, and a hit to Mississippi’s Damarcus Thomas that caused him to lose all feeling in his body, to name just a very few.
• There were dire injuries in high school too. In Georgia, Pace Academy sophomore Jordan Sloan suffered a traumatic brain injury during a game in late September and, as of Nov. 20, was slated to move to a rehab facility; a GoFundMe page had raised nearly half of its $500,000 goal for his care.
• In Kentucky, Zach Vorbrink, a North Bullitt High School senior, suffered a head injury that resulted in a brain bleed and subsequent surgery. “I think Zach went over the top of the kid and hit the ground,” his coach said. “Head-to-head collisions are bad, but head-to-ground collisions are the worst.”
The desire to play football is huge among paid and unpaid athletes, and the revenue the sport generates at the college and pro levels is irresistible. But Covid-19 has already claimed more than 250,000 American lives, and hospitals across the United States are again nearing capacity. Failing to prioritize both athlete and community health by minimizing Covid-19 risks associated with college, high school, and pro football this year is inexcusable.
Lisa Kearns is a senior researcher in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Kathleen Bachynski is an assistant professor at Muhlenberg College and the author of “No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis” (University of North Carolina Press, November 2019). Arthur Caplan is professor of bioethics and director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.