Editorial | Screen footballers and other athletes
Having been starved of organised competitive football for 14 months, Jamaica’s soccer fans will expect, even relish, the prospect of this weekend’s restart of the National Premier League even though matches will be played without spectators and the format of the competition will see the relatively early exit of half of the dozen teams in the contest.
Yet that is the price to be paid for a semblance of normality in the abnormal times of COVID-19. The preservation and safety of people’s health come first. So while Jamaica’s semi-professional football clubs lack the economic wherewithal to maintain their teams in biosecure environments so as to lessen the prospects of spreading the coronavirus, the proposed weekly testing of players for the disease and not having crowds at the games are workable second best.
Additionally, the promise by the sports minister, Olivia Grange, to facilitate the inoculation of players is also a sensible idea that should be embraced by the footballers and their clubs, if, and when, vaccines are available. Indeed, given that football can be a relatively close-contact sport, vaccination should be mandatory for players once its is accessible. This is a matter on which Professional Football Jamaica (PFJ) and its president, Chris Williams, should clarify the organisation’s policy.
PRESERVATION OF HEALTH
Ultimately, the protocols to which the clubs and their players are being asked to adhere are for the preservation of health of the wider community and the footballers, from whose performance the public derives enjoyment and for which they are paid. If the players cannot run and jump and kick, they cannot play football. Which brings us to the issue of other protocols by the PFJ and the football clubs to assure the well-being of their players. Indeed, it is a question for all sport administrations and administrators.
Twelve days ago, global television audiences watched in horror and trepidation as the Danish midfielder, Christian Eriksen, playing in a Euro 2020 first-round match against Finland in Copenhagen, suddenly collapsed on the field. He was hurriedly ring-fenced by his team as medics performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest. Happily, he is making a recovery, although his football career is probably at an end.
That trained medical staff with advanced equipment were at hand to attend to Eriksen is due, in part, to what happened to English footballer Fabrice Muamba in 2012. Playing for Bolton Wanderers in an FA Cup against Tottenham Hotspur, Muamba suffered cardiac arrest. His heart stopped for 78 minutes. Miraculously, with the aid of modern science, he lived.
Jamaicans do not have to go abroad for cases of footballers and other athletes who have suffered catastrophic medical events on the field of play, sometimes with the very worst outcomes.
Seven years ago, Cavahn McKenzie, a 17-year-old middle-distance runner from St Jago High School, collapsed and died while competing in a cross-country race in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2016, Dominic James, St George’s College’s talented football captain, collapsed on the field during a Mannings Cup match. He died in hospital. Six weeks later, Raymar Ramsay, a student of Spot Valley High School, St James, collapsed in the team’s bus on his way back from a basketball match. He, too, died.
In January 2019, Raheem Thompson, a Jamaica College footballer, suffered a stroke while playing in a match. A month later, Kemoy Campbell, Jamaica record holder at 3,000 and 5,000 metres, collapsed while running as a pacesetter in a race in New York City.
These events led to a flurry of calls for greater screening of athletes, especially at the school level, for cardiovascular and other conditions, as well as for appropriate medical professionals and equipment, including defibrillators, to be at matches. It is not clear if robust screening was ever implemented and whether agreed protocols are policed. But given the semi-professional nature of football, PFJ has a clear obligation to periodically screen players for conditions that make them susceptible to cardiovascular events .
While there are no data on the frequency of such conditions among Jamaican athletes, we suspect that it is substantially greater than people presume. Indeed, some studies in the United States suggest that up to one in 100,000 athletes under the age of 35 die suddenly but that the number is up to two and a half times more for children who play sports than non-athletes. Heart problems are most often the cause of death.
Such deaths, in the main, follow the underlying condition, which may be caught and treated if screened for. Doing this in an organised fashion cannot be beyond the capacity of Jamaica, a country with such a proud sporting tradition.