Florida’s Balancing Act: Protect Keyontae Johnson’s Privacy While Being Transparent on Risks

The school must protect its player—but also be clear about what it can and can not share and does and does not know about his condition's link to COVID-19.
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The news from the University of Florida this week has been increasingly encouraging, but unsettlingly incomplete. Basketball player Keyontae Johnson is making gradual improvement after his terrifying mid-game collapse last Saturday at Florida State. Yet there is so much we don’t know, at a time when the unknown is particularly disconcerting.

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This is the most delicate of balancing acts: The school is trying to protect the privacy of a player suffering a serious medical issue while it faces all the questions echoing throughout college basketball about a possible link between Johnson’s having COVID-19 during the summer and his collapse. A sport that has seen scores of its players test positive for the virus wants to be sure those players aren’t at any risk of a similarly scary situation.

“If it had something to do with COVID, I would say every coach in the country would like to know,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said earlier this week.

“I’m more concerned all the time because nothing is being said,” another Southeastern Conference coach said. “At some point we need to know how the heart was affected or if it was something else.”

“Protect his privacy but share relevant information to help others,” said a third SEC coach.

As of Friday afternoon, Florida has offered no specifics. It’s been six days, but it could take many more to rule out (or in) a number of causes. Goodness only knows the number of tests that have been run on the young man. As a society we are accustomed to rapid information, but medical science doesn’t always work that way.

One thing Florida could do: Be transparent about what it can and can not share and what it does and does not know that could have implications for the health of the hundreds of college basketball players still competing nationwide.

What we do know is that Johnson had the virus many months ago. Florida coach Mike White said in October that his team had dealt with some COVID-19 cases and was shorthanded at practice for eight to 10 days. Then the team announced Nov. 22 that it had paused workouts.

That led to cancellation of the Gators’ first two games, in November. Their season began Dec. 2. The game at Florida State was their fourth of the season.

The immediate concern after Johnson’s collapse was a potential heart issue, including myocarditis, which has been identified as a side effect for some people who contract COVID-19. Myocarditis fears were one of the driving forces behind the initial decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12 to cancel fall football. It wasn’t until later studies showed that those risks might have been overstated that those leagues moved forward with playing. (Though the condition forced Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez to sit out the major league season after he contracted COVID-19.)

Florida and SEC protocols dictate that Johnson’s heart would have been rigorously checked before his collapse, and presumably he had passed all tests. Florida administers pre-enrollment heart screenings to all incoming athletes, and within the last couple of years has disqualified two football players from competing at the school. The school also re-checks all athletes’ hearts heading into their third and fifth years (Johnson was in his third year in Gainesville). And per SEC rules in 2020, Johnson would have had to produce additional healthy EKGs and echocardiograms after having COVID-19.

It seems highly unlikely that Florida would withhold any information that showed a COVID-related link to what happened—that would be irresponsible. But it’s clear that the university isn’t ready to offer definitive information. Maybe that day is coming soon, but we aren’t there now.

“There is a responsibility to share what we know,” said one high-ranked Florida source, “but also not to share incomplete information.”

More complete information should be coming. The variable is time, and time is ticking slowly for those in the sport.

“We’re dealing with parents who are really concerned about long-term effects and lack of information,” said a coach from outside the SEC.

“I’m curious as hell,” said another.

In the meantime, Johnson’s condition keeps improving. Will he play basketball again? Too soon to know that. The chilling sight of him slamming to the Donald L. Tucker Center floor face-down just a few minutes into the game against the Seminoles, then leaving the arena on a stretcher bound for Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, is hard to unsee. If you watched the video, you wish you hadn’t—and if you haven’t, don’t.

Meanwhile, the Gators have put their season on hold. They announced Thursday that they are postponing their three remaining nonconference games, making their next scheduled game Dec. 30 against Vanderbilt. The players will get to spend some time at home for Christmas before returning to campus.

The decision to cancel those games was reached for mental health reasons, not concerns about spreading the virus. The entire team was traumatized by the sight of their star player going down and not getting up. The fact that Johnson was able to FaceTime with the team this week from the hospital had to help, but what happened to a beloved team member won’t go away easily.

The context surrounding this scary moment is where the larger existential crisis lies. The college sports world has been deeply conflicted for months on whether games should be played, and the fall and winter seasons have been a mess.

Eventually 127 out of 130 FBS programs decided to play, but dozens of players opted out of the season and of games—many of which have been postponed or canceled. The crawl to the finish line of the football regular season this month has become downright pathetic. Teams have taken skeleton rosters into competition. At least 14 teams have opted out of bowl consideration. The motivation level of many to see this thing through is sinking fast.

While football is reaching a miserable conclusion, basketball has gotten off to a fairly miserable start, with games called off from coast to coast. No less than former President Barack Obama announced this week on Bill Simmons’ podcast his misgivings with college sports being played.

“But I’ll be honest with you, probably the area where I’m most frustrated is college, right?” Obama said on the podcast. “Because whatever happens at the professional level, at least these are adults who are getting paid and they’re making a series of decisions that may be suboptimal for the players, but for the most part, you’re not putting other people at risk. When I watch college football in particular right now—we’ll see how basketball develops—there is this sense of the economics driving a series of decisions in which a bunch of very young people are being put at risk in ways that are unnecessary.”

College sports hasn’t allowed any of those misgivings to sidetrack its attempt to play football and basketball seasons as scheduled. Many of the sports that don’t make money have had their seasons altered, postponed, shortened or canceled — but not the revenue makers.

The belief within the industry is that those seasons can be conducted safely, albeit awkwardly. For the sake of all involved, the best news college athletics could get from Florida is that Keyontae Johnson will make a full recovery—and that COVID-19 had nothing to do with his collapse. But there is no definitive information at all.

For now, we don’t know. And the unknown that comes along with this season is haunting.