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Report: Keyontae Johnson diagnosed with season-ending acute myocarditis

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If Johnson’s status is linked to his previous COVID-19 infection, it may be seismic for sports.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Des Moines Practice Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Keyontae Johnson has been diagnosed with acute myocarditis — a condition that has been widely feared as a potential consequence of COVID-19 infection — and will sit out the rest of the 2020-21 college basketball season, reports Zach Abolverdi of The Gainesville Sun.

Per Abolverdi, Johnson was diagnosed with the condition in Gainesville early last week:

Following the collapse that left Johnson unresponsive, he was transferred last Monday from Tallahassee Memorial to UF Health in Gainesville, where an MRI on his heart led to a diagnosis of acute myocarditis, according to a source with first-hand knowledge.

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital does indicate on its website that it can perform the so-called cardiac MRI that is helpful in revealing myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle — but it is possible that Johnson, who was reportedly in “critical but stable” condition during his stay in Tallahassee, was not in a condition to have it performed prior to being moved to Gainesville early last week.

Abolverdi writes that Johnson is expected to be out “for a minimum of three months” and likely for the rest of the 2020-21 season.

This report on Johnson’s health conflicts with his family’s and previously stated wishes to have further updates on his health be issued through them and Florida. A statement from Johnson’s family on Tuesday revealed the happy news that Johnson was being released from the hospital and would spend Christmas with his family, but also openly noted that they are “committed to sharing not only updates on Keyontae but also any information we think could help others.”

Abolverdi’s story notes that he attempted to contact the Johnson family prior to their statement “in an attempt to confirm his son’s health status,” suggesting that he may have learned the information about Johnson’s diagnosis prior to Tuesday’s statement, and that Johnson’s father “read the message but did not respond.” It also mentions a effort to reach out to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, who was unavailable for comment.

And so it exists at a tricky precipice between respecting a family’s public wishes and revealing information that is potentially crucial to the health of countless athletes.

There is no clear link between Johnson’s reported previous case of COVID-19 — first reported last week by the Associated Press and repeated by Abolverdi as fact, but as yet unconfirmed by the Johnson family or Florida — and this reported myocarditis; Abolverdi writes that Johnson’s condition “can’t be definitively linked to his COVID diagnosis.”

But the fear of myocarditis as a serious and life-threatening consequence of COVID-19 — and, as myocarditis can be exacerbated by physical exertion, an increased risk of sudden death — was instrumental in much of the planning for college sports returning to play this fall, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 initially delaying and cancelling their seasons in large part due to scholarship on a possible large prevalence of myocarditis and return-to-play efforts buttressed by more scholarship casting that link into doubt.

Johnson very likely underwent testing for myocarditis and other cardiovascular system workups after his COVID-19 infection, as Florida and SEC protocols both dictate. If his health appeared normal — or at least consistent with clearing him to play — after that testing, but some artifact of his infection left him more susceptible to developing myocarditis, it would be a potentially devastating blow to the ability to accurately predict when — or if — athletes who contracted COVID-19 could safely return to play.

Abolverdi’s report suggests that one of the worst-case scenarios for a young athlete — myocarditis itself, which has been linked to sudden deaths during competition and training for decades — is sadly true for Johnson.

Whether that diagnosis is in any way connected to COVID-19 is going to be one of the most closely-watched stories in sports in the coming days and weeks.