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Myron Rolle: NFL safety-turned-doctor is concerned about COVID-19 in sports

The neurosurgery resident said if health was the priority, the NFL would have invested in a bubble

It wasn’t just the task of removing the brain tumor that presented a major challenge for Dr. Myron Rolle, the former NFL safety. The patient wheeled into the operating room several months ago had also tested positive for COVID-19, making an already complicated procedure much more complex.

“You want to make sure that when they’re intubated there’s not a release of those respiratory droplets or track particles that become aerosolized, and you want to be careful with gowning and gloving,” said Rolle, who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2010 and is now a neurosurgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “This is a COVID-19 patient who’s getting their skull opened up and their brain sort of moved around to take out this offending space-occupying lesion. It was so different than what I had ever experienced, or anyone in the operating room had experienced.”

Rolle, who spent his previous career deciphering which receiver to pick up in Cover 2, has had to expand his expertise of opening up skulls and spines to also occasionally handling COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.

During the first wave, Rolle, 33, volunteered to help with COVID-19 patients as hospitals were overwhelmed early on.

“If it’s needed for us to transition our practice from the operating room to the ICU or the emergency departments to handle the surge of patients coming in with COVID-19, we do it without any sort of reluctancy,” Rolle said. “We want to help everyone. We are here to be doctors first before specialists. …

“This isn’t just limited to doctors who deal with pulmonology or critical care or emergency room doctors,” he said. “It hits everyone — the OB-GYN circuit, dermatology and neurosurgery. When we were a hot spot, our neurosurgical floors were turned into COVID-19 floors. We were all recruited to take part in the treatment.”

Although the summer saw a decline in the number of COVID-19 patients rushing to hospitals, the fall has brought about a nationwide surge in cases, including in the sports world.

The NFL and college football, specifically, continue to see new cases popping up each week, forcing team facilities to close and games to be delayed or cancelled.

Rolle believes it was a mistake for the NFL to open outside of a bubble.

“It would have been a herculean task, but I think it could have been done if there was a priority on health,” Rolle said. “The NFL can organize Super Bowls, combines, drafts and other major events. I think it’s possible for them to have said if we’re this concerned about this disease, then maybe we should invest in some sort of a bubble.”

In the numbers announced Tuesday by the NFL, there were 19 new COVID-19 cases during the testing period between Oct. 18-24 (eight players, and 11 cases among personnel) out of 42,687 tests. This week, the Houston Texans were forced to close their facilities after offensive tackle Max Scharping tested positive.

College football has been hit even harder. No. 9 Wisconsin had to cancel Saturday’s game against Nebraska after 12 people — six players and six staff members, including quarterback Graham Mertz and head coach Paul Chryst — tested positive. Florida is coming off a two-week shutdown after a COVID-19 outbreak this month sidelined 37 players and head coach Dan Mullen. Notre Dame and Alabama have also been among the programs to experience infections. And on Thursday, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Rolle said no one in the NFL or college football has reached out to to ask his opinion about moving forward in the midst of a pandemic, but he’s talked to numerous current players, coaches and scouts about their concerns.

“They all share the same concern,” Rolle said. “They’re not sure if the season can continue without any further disruption. And they’re not sure the season will even finish.”

Rolle said players and coaches have also expressed concerns to him about the accuracy of the tests. Several teams, including the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets, recently closed their practice facilities after positive COVID-19 tests only to quickly reopen after those results were deemed false positives.

“They’ve told me that the nasopharyngeal swabs they receive from the team every day have been less detailed and less thorough,” Rolle said. “Maybe the tests have changed, or maybe the technical aspects of the tests are not as precise as they once were. It’s important to make sure these tests are true positives or true negatives.”

As Rolle watches games each week, he also sees players and coaches attempting to follow the safety guidelines, but eventually falling into bad habits.

Myron Rolle #25 of the Tennessee Titans during a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals at LP Field on August 23, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

“At times you see coaches pull their mask down to communicate with their team or yell at the officials, and you see other sideline personnel do the same,” Rolle said. “NFL players and coaches are creatures of habit, and as you start getting into your routine, you start to revert to the things that got you to where you are.”

Rolle believes mixed messaging about the virus has played a role, too. This week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady shared a post on his Instagram page that said there have been more suicide deaths than COVID-19 deaths the past two months. That statement is false, according to Politifact (19,000 people died from COVID-19 in June; 4,000 people die from suicide in an average month), which eventually led Brady to delete the post.

“The mixed messaging comes from everywhere, and hearing two different stories can leave you confused,” Rolle said. “It’s hard to disseminate all the information and make a good, accurate call. I would advise those young men to go to the most objective data, which in my opinion comes from academic research centers and hospitals and agencies.”

The mixed messaging has caused a segment of the world to cast a shadow of doubt on the work and opinions of medical professionals and scientists.

The questioning of science is something Rolle mostly sees directed at scientists and health officials. But Rolle has also received criticism from some who doubt a former football player can be a successful neurosurgeon.

Rolle was inspired to be a neurosurgeon in the fifth grade after reading the book Gifted Hands by then-neurosurgeon Ben Carson. A three-year starter at Florida State, Rolle was a Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford before declaring for the NFL draft in 2010. After his brief stint in the NFL, Rolle attended the Florida State University College of Medicine in 2013 and graduated in 2017.

“It makes you feel disappointed,” Rolle said of the criticism. “When you spend energy on patients who need you and who require your assistance, intelligence and care — when that is doubted or questioned, it can be frustrating at times. We just have to stay committed and really change our perspective even when we’re doubted or questioned at times.”

As someone who has been on the front lines during the pandemic, Rolle said there is still a lot that is unknown about the virus, including the long-term effects, which is why he has concerns about how sports leagues are handling their seasons.

“What does it look like three years from now, five years, 10 years from now?” Rolle said. “Are there long-lasting effects on your ability to saturate your body with oxygen? Are there lasting effects on your kidneys or your brain?

“As a neurosurgery resident, I’m curious to know if there are any neurological symptoms that come with it. We don’t know this. It just hasn’t been here that long.”

Rolle fondly recalls his time as a football player, particularly at Florida State. He describes his years as a student-athlete as some of the most memorable years of his life. But when asked about a hypothetical situation in which he had college-age kids in sports, whether he would he allow them to compete during the current pandemic, Rolle’s response was emphatic.

“I would tell them that right now, maybe the time is to focus on the career after football or after basketball or after track or whatever it is that you do,” Rolle said. “You don’t want to be the one person or the statistic that says, you know, we didn’t have to play this game, but yet here you are being hospitalized with an acute respiratory infection that may damage you long term.

“With the knowledge that we have right now, it’s certainly not worth it.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.