North Carolina Faculty Athletics Committee member: 'There was, to be candid, NO appetite for disrupting basketball here'

Public interest in Keyontae Johnson has declined at an alarming level. It's worth asking why.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, Jay Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in early-modern France and who has taught a course titled “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes,” found common ground with a Tobacco Road rival of North Carolina – Duke – as he questioned whether it is responsible for college basketball to be played during the pandemic.

“I personally believe it’s irresponsible to continue playing college basketball right in the teeth of the worst virus spikes we’re going to see over the entire history of this pandemic, with numerous players (and evidently at least one team) already affected in serious ways by the viral spread,” Smith wrote in an message to the University of North Carolina’s Faculty Athletics Committee on Dec. 23, which was obtained by Out of Bounds. On the day of Smith’s message, Chicago State announced it was suspending competition for the rest of the men’s basketball season.

“No less a luminary than Mike Krzyzewski evidently feels the same way,” Smith wrote. “I want to urge that we, as a committee (at least the faculty members on the committee) consider a) whether we collectively believe it is responsible for universities to continue to do what they are doing, and b) if we need to issue a statement about it.”

The Faculty Athletics Committee “informs and represents the faculty and advises the chancellor on any aspect of athletics, including, but not limited to, the academic and broader University experience for varsity student-athletes, and the general conduct and operation of the University’s athletic program,” according to the university’s website.

“If other players collapse because of myocarditis in the weeks/months ahead (to say nothing of the obvious long-term risks),” Smith wrote, “I for one will feel terribly guilty for not having tried harder to stop this.”

Smith wrote “other players” because on Dec. 12, Florida’s Keyontae Johnson collapsed during a game against Florida State, which left him in “critical but stable condition,” according to the program. He was later transferred from Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare to UF Health in Gainesville, where he was released from the hospital 10 days after his collapse. Upon his release, Florida released a statement that announced, in part, “As much as everyone involved wants firm answers, the process to draw definitive conclusions continues, and we ask for patience as the medical professionals continue their work. We are committed to sharing not only updates on Keyontae but also any information we think could help others.”

The Gainesville Sun reported that following an MRI, Johnson was diagnosed with acute myocarditis “that may be related to an earlier infection for COVID-19,” citing a source with firsthand knowledge.

It’s the uncertainty and the uncomfortable nature of waiting on the filtering of reliable information about a 21-year-old’s medical records – the results of which could potentially be applied to athletes and otherwise healthy young adults across the country – that makes Johnson the biggest and the most pressing, but also maybe most awkward and most underreported story in sports.

It’s also arguably the most forgotten story in sports, when you weigh the potential causes and ramifications of his collapse, with how quantifiable interest in Johnson has waned rapidly.

According to Google Trends, the search interest for Johnson over the 30-day span from Dec. 11, 2020 through Jan. 10, 2021 peaked on Dec. 13, which was the day after he collapsed.

Here’s how Google Trends quantifies search interest:

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term.

After search interest for Johnson peaked on Dec. 13 with a value of “100,” the search interest a week later was given a value of “4,” which means that compared to the day after he collapsed, the number of searches involving “Keyontae Johnson” on Dec. 20 had just four percent of the volume.

Nine days after his collapse, search interest was down to a “2,” or two percent of the peak volume. On a 90-day scale, there was a value of “0,” meaning not enough search data, on Jan. 8, Jan. 10 and Jan. 11, whereas you could find at least three days in October with enough search interest for Johnson to register as “<1.”

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To be clear, the collapse of any player – a men’s or women’s player, one in Division I or Division III, a player in the NBA or one in high school – should, in theory, warrant the same, incredibly high amount of attention and scrutiny from the media and the public right now. But it’s jarring because Johnson isn’t just any player – he was the SEC Preseason Player of the Year, CBS Sports’s No. 18 player in the country in the preseason and a potential first-round NBA draft pick – yet the public interest in his condition still quickly plummeted, day over day, until by Google Trends’s own definition, the interest became essentially too small to measure.

Sure, there are potential explanations behind those metrics. The holidays. The runoff elections in Georgia, the storming of the Capitol and an upcoming inauguration have been major news stories that impact more people in more tangible ways. Once news of Johnson’s release from the hospital made the rounds, people may have generally chalked up his health status to pretty much normal, fine, more or less healthy.

Or maybe the sheer volume of Google searches for Johnson’s status on Dec. 13 made it nearly impossible for later searches in the days that followed to compare in any noticeable way.

Because there were so many searches in the immediate aftermath of his collapse that even on Jan. 11 – the day before the one-month marker of the Florida-Florida State game – the top suggested question after a Google search for “Keyontae Johnson” was “Is Keyontae Johnson still alive?”

But even if people rushed to search engines and social media sites in the hours and the first few days after Johnson’s collapse to look for answers, there were also days in the month after his hospitalization where search interest barely registered, with a value of “<1” during the previously mentioned 30-day span on Google Trends.

Florida’s opponent and the location of the game on Dec. 12 make the decline in quantifiable search interest all the more surprising.

Sadly, the Florida State community previously experienced the collapse of a basketball player last year. Former Seminoles center Michael Ojo died in early August after collapsing while training in Serbia, and CBS News reported that Ojo had previously tested positive for, and reportedly recovered from, COVID-19. News coverage about Ojo’s death was featured on one of the Pac-12’s slides about cardiac concerns for athletes that was part of the conference’s final update from its Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative, which presented the slides the day before the Pac-12 postponed all competition in August.

Maybe, and you could even argue hopefully, Florida’s medical professionals will reach the conclusion that COVID-19 had nothing to do with Johnson’s collapse, that some combination of his preexisting genetic makeup and his level of exertion caused him to collapse in Tallahassee, with the virus being no way involved in the medical equation.

That might be the best-case scenario – a terrible, isolated incident (and regardless of the cause, one from which he can hopefully make a full recovery), rather than one that’s potentially linked to the virus that’s responsible for nearly 240,000 new cases reported in the U.S. on Jan. 14. But until the day that Florida makes such an announcement – if and when that day ever comes – we’re only left with the ability to ask questions, except those questions rarely seem to be asked right now.

There’s little time to ask those potentially life-or-death questions when you’re a national voice or outlet that covers the sport and you have to update your daily or weekly top-25, top-26, top-36 or top-45 rankings – one of the sport’s most valuable pieces of content from a pageviews and social media engagement perspective.

There’s little time to ask the hard, important questions when you’re promoting that “over 93% of teams that chose to play Division 1 college basketball are still up and running despite a once-in-a-century global pandemic,” as part of an ongoing Twitter bit that has been updated daily since Nov. 14. Show me someone who cherry-picks a stat in order to make this season appear as normal and as successful as possible, and I’ll show you someone who’s acting in bad faith.

On Wednesday, one of the top two news stories following a Google search for “Keyontae Johnson” was a story that refuted a previous report that Johnson was out for the season. So now, you might be as likely to read about when and how Johnson might return to the court as you are to read about what sidelined him in the first place.

The other top search result, which arguably showed some of the worst tendencies in today’s media climate, was a photo gallery of Johnson that was published on Jan. 11. It was presumably designed to scoop up whatever pageviews are available from the relatively small percent of the population that’s still searching for medical updates on Johnson.

The headline of the gallery reads, “PHOTOS: Gators star forward Keyontae Johnson is a force to be reckoned with.” Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen a photo gallery published for an individual college player, especially one that’s published midseason, not based around an outlet’s preseason or end-of-year coverage.

The gallery of Johnson is the only one published by Gators Wire since the start of the season and it was published 29 days after Johnson was taken off the court in a stretcher. After Johnson’s gallery, the next-most recent photo galleries on the site are from August, which includes end-of-season galleries for 10 different members of Florida’s men’s basketball team last season, photo galleries for three incoming transfers, and one gallery from a Florida recruit’s participation in a dunk contest.

Once again, they’re all based around preseason or end-of-season coverage, except for Johnson’s. That kind of media coverage is there to take – to take your eyeballs, your clicks, your shares – not to give – give context, original reporting or new information.

But it’s not just the public and the media that have largely moved on from Johnson’s collapse, its potential ramifications or the general state of affairs of playing college sports amid a pandemic, but so have some of those who work in higher education.

Smith, the professor at the University of North Carolina, told Out of Bounds in an email that at a Faculty Athletics Committee (FAC) meeting in January, a doctor who works for the athletic department gave a long presentation to the committee. After the presentation, “there were few members of the FAC who were even interested in asking follow-up questions,” Smith wrote in an email. “There was, to be candid, NO appetite for disrupting basketball here. None. (That is, other than mine.)

“As a committee, we found every excuse – the players want to play, they could get sick if they weren’t playing, our doctors are great, etc. – not to act. It was dispiriting, even though this was typical of faculty athletic committees all across the country.”

On Thursday, the Virginia women’s basketball team announced it will not compete for the remainder of the season, following the Duke women’s basketball team’s decision to opt out of the season on Dec. 25. The final ACC women’s basketball standings will feature Duke (0-1) and Virginia (0-2).

Read the quote tweets from Virginia’s announcement and you’ll find a handful of predictable comments, such as “Easy to cancel the season when your [sic] winless.” Not only are trolls batting below the Mendoza line when it comes to the correct use of “you’re” vs. “your,” but maybe they’re right – but not in the way they intended to be.

No, Duke and Virginia’s women’s basketball teams aren’t quitters or soft or whatever toxic inference that’s made by someone whose Twitter bio says he’s a fan of Iowa football, the Washington Football Team, the Boston Red Sox and the Oklahoma City Thunder (yes, that’s real, and without a 2000s bailout from the Red Sox, those four teams might be among the worst ratios of regular season wins to championships that you could settle on, after handpicking unrelated sports teams from across the country).

But for a coach or an athlete, maybe it’s easier to reinstate your suspended disbelief about a season that’s played amid a pandemic when there’s not a national ranking next to your name nor a regular-season conference championship race or an all-important postseason berth on the horizon.

There’s a reason why the college football teams that declined bowl opportunities weren’t those playing in the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl game. There’s a reason Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle limped through the national championship game after suffering a nearly season-ending ankle injury in late October, while other top NFL draft prospects opted out of the postseason, or even the regular season in some cases.

The men’s basketball NCAA tournament is the nearly $1 billion carrot that’s placed at the opposite end of the gauntlet, and it’s why the season is going to plow through whatever’s in its way, with few questions asked and even fewer reassuring answers given.

When Coach K said in December, “A lot of kids aren’t going to be going home for Christmas during a time when they should for mental health. We’re just plowing through this. … We should get updates on how many programs are on pause each week, how many new cases there are and not just plow through,” there was more attention paid to Duke’s 2-2 record at the time and the response from Alabama coach Nate Oats, rather than the substance of Krzyzewski’s comments, while putting Duke’s home losses to Michigan State and Illinois to the side.

When ACC athletes were involved in the #WeWantToPlay social media movement, which also included the stated goal of creating a college football players association, there were administrators, conferences and television partners that didn’t express support for the players association part, just the “see, the players want to play!” part.

And a major television partner was happy to play along.

During the opening minutes of the ABC broadcast of preseason No. 1 Clemson’s season opener against Wake Forest, the production crew showed a flashy compilation of tweets from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, conveniently leaving out the whole players association angle.

The broadcasters never mentioned it once.

All too often the “well, the players wanted to play” reasoning is cherry-picked for times when supporting players’ wishes helps the status quo of the college athletics machine, because the players are often otherwise ignored when they ask for a bigger piece of the pie.

Take this, from a recent story from The Daily Beast:

An athlete in the SEC added, “I know lots of people are saying we want to play and so [playing football during the pandemic is] OK. Yeah, I mean, I love playing football, but when do I get a say in this?”

Now, about the players “could get sick if they weren’t playing” angle used by members of North Carolina’s Faculty Athletics Committee, and many other coaches and administrators since last August. Louisville men’s basketball coach Chris Mack said in mid-December that 90 percent of his team has contracted COVID-19 and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson said “all 15 players” have had the virus, so the blanket arguments that athletes are safer on campus doesn’t hold water. Boston College’s football program nearly went the entire season without a positive test, as its first and only positive case occurred in December, so it’s possible that individuals schools or programs can string together months of negative tests, but that’s certainly not true for every athletic program at every school.

No, we don’t know – at least publicly – exactly what happened to Keyontae Johnson or why. And part of the problem is that media members, fans and professors have stopped asking, if they ever even asked in the first place.

Why has the college basketball community seemingly moved on from asking questions about Keyontae Johnson’s health status, what caused it and what it might mean for college sports?

Like the question itself about what led to Johnson currently being a coach on Florida’s bench rather than one of its players on the court, that’s a question that’s worth asking more often.

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Recap of the last newsletter

(Click the image below to read)

“In the moment, we may not have known or realized the potential impact of a series of digital pats on the back and cyber handshakes, after the pandemic had made real ones impossible, and it might take years, if not decades, to begin to quantify their final legacy, whether positive or negative.”

Read the full newsletter here.


Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.