The Contact Sport of Football

Football, Obesity & COVID-19: What Could Go Wrong?

Football has a few problems. For one thing, there’s the brain injury kerfuffle. But fewer kids are getting hurt now because fewer are playing football. So that’s a plus. But on the negative side of the ledger, we have the strong desire to get back to football this fall crashing into a tiny little virus that causes COVID-19. Just to make things more interesting, consider the fact that COVID-19 is more deadly for people with obesity. Since some football players – especially linemen – have an issue with obesity, a COVID-19 outbreak could be quite unpleasant.

Consider the possibility of the first “student athlete” to develop COVID-19 and die. Bad PR. How might this affect the popularity and revenues for this quintessentially American sport?

Unhappy Student Athletes

The student athletes who fuel the college football money machine are in an especially tough spot. The NCAA is churning out guidance to help colleges keep football money flowing this fall. The athletes whose bodies this sport pummels are faced with an impossible choice. If the sport moves ahead, can they afford to opt out of a gamble with their health?

The most powerful conference in college football, the SEC, plans to push ahead with games this fall. But in a conference call with concerned players, an official from the conference told the players that some of them would be getting COVID-19:

There are going to be outbreaks. We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.

You might imagine that this was not very satisfying for the players. One of them, linebacker Keeath Magee II, summed it up pretty well:

You guys have answered a lot of questions the best way that you guys could, and we really appreciate it. But as much as you guys don’t know … it’s just kind of not good enough.

Obesity and Football Linemen

The data on obesity and football linemen is pretty clear. Of course, BMI alone is not a good indicator of obesity, but in a study 12 years ago, researchers found obesity in 25 percent of college linebackers. This was confirmed by multiple methods for measuring adiposity. Since then, the prevalence of obesity has only grown.

Of course, all this talk about the coming season of football is mere speculation. But it’s not much of a stretch to think it could turn out badly. The combination of football, obesity, and COVID-19 seems like a bad one, since obesity can dramatically raise the risk of severe symptoms and even death. As that SEC official said, outbreaks are going to happen.

Despite all the assurances college football leaders are offering, we agree with Keeath Magee II. It’s just kind of not good enough.

Click here and here for more on the coming season of college football. For more on the intersection of football and obesity, click here and here.

The Contact Sport of Football, photograph © Rich Whitlow / flickr

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August 2, 2020