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University Of Florida Forward Keyontae Johnson Diagnosed With Heart Inflammation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Keyontae Johnson, the 21-year-old forward at the University of Florida, was supposed to have a breakout season this year. But his basketball future is in doubt after he collapsed face first during a game earlier this month. He was unresponsive, immediately hospitalized. A family member told USA Today Johnson was briefly in a medically induced coma. Well, Johnson was released from the hospital yesterday. That is the good news.

The Gainesville Sun is now reporting that he was diagnosed with a heart condition that can be triggered by a COVID-19 infection, and Johnson reportedly had COVID-19 earlier this year. Well, this story is prompting bigger questions about the safety of college sports during the pandemic, questions we'll put now to Gainesville Sun reporter Zach Abolverdi.

Hey there, Zach.

ZACH ABOLVERDI: Hey, Mary Louise. I appreciate you having me.

KELLY: For those who don't follow college basketball super closely, tell us more about Keyontae Johnson and what happened. This is now 11 days ago.

ABOLVERDI: Yes, absolutely. Well, Keyontae, first and foremost - a star forward for the Gators. And I think everyone is, you know, happy to see that he's - be able to go home for Christmas with his family. And, you know, before his collapse, he was on his way to potentially a first-round draft pick after earning, you know, all-SEC honors as a sophomore. He decided to return for his junior season. And, you know, his collapse at Florida State just shocked the sporting world. It was...

KELLY: It was totally out of the blue, right? He'd just dunked. And then he was walking and...

ABOLVERDI: Yeah, I mean, and it was right after a dunk. And, you know, following along with what happened as he made it to the hospitals and - I think everyone at first was just - wanted to make sure he was going to be OK. And then people wanted to know what had happened to him.

KELLY: Right. Which leads to your reporting, which is you were reporting he has been diagnosed with acute myocarditis. Explain what that is, how he might have gotten it.

ABOLVERDI: That's an inflammation of the heart muscle. And it's not something that's new to college athletics. You know, since myocarditis - it's most commonly got by viral infections, and it has been linked to COVID-19. There's fear about what that could do to athletes. And we've already seen some that have been sidelined because of myocarditis. Just this month, the starting safety at Miami, Al Blades, a woman's basketball player at Vanderbilt, both of them announced that they had been diagnosed with myocarditis and were going to be out for the season after having COVID.

So, you know, the report from the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated that Keyontae had had COVID - that left everybody to wonder, you know, if that myocarditis could have been related. And at this time, you know, Mary Louise, we still don't know that because it could be caused by a number of things.

KELLY: Well, and speaking of things we know or don't know, I want to note that neither his family nor the university, University of Florida, have confirmed your report. Can you give us any sense of what gives you confidence in your sourcing here?

ABOLVERDI: Yeah, absolutely. No, we have our solid info here. You know, we wanted to wait and give Keyontae and his family the opportunity to announce this and certainly the University of Florida because we've seen that happen at other schools with other athletes. But once it had been, you know, 10 days out and he was being released from the hospital, we decided to start pursuing the story just because we felt like this was something that college athletics needed to know. You know, John Calipari, the head coach at Kentucky, said if it's COVID-related, Keyontae's collapse, he thought every college coach in the country would want to know. I think every college athlete in the country would want to know as well.

KELLY: Well, absolutely because we don't have exact numbers. But by some counts, there have been thousands of college athletes who have tested positive for COVID. What are the potential broader implications here for college sports?

ABOLVERDI: Yeah, and that's some of the questions that we still have. Obviously, if they find a way to link this to his COVID case, does that mean that they have to go back and look at their COVID protocols as it relates to the cardiac evaluations that athletes receive after they get COVID and their symptoms subside? Do those cardiac evaluations need to happen more often? Do they need to have follow up? If some of these athletes have symptoms that are severe enough, do they need to get MRIs? These are all questions, I think, that we still have.

KELLY: Zach Abolverdi, senior reporter for the Gainesville Sun, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

ABOLVERDI: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O & DANGER MOUSE'S "LUX PRIMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.