NCAA May Force Schools To Test For Sickle Cell Trait

In the past decade, more than a dozen young athletes who died during vigorous workouts were found to have the sickle cell trait. Some health experts are concerned the required screening could lead to black students with the trait being singled out and excluded from sports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Today in Your Health: Protecting young athletes. This January, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is expected to decide whether universities have to test athletes for the sickle cell trait. That's an inherited gene, not a disease. It's found most often in African-Americans. Having one sickle cell gene has been linked to the death of several young athletes, mainly football players.

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: Bridget Lloyd says that her 19-year-old son had been an athlete all his life, excelling in football and baseball, before he was offered an athletic scholarship to Rice University.

Ms. BRIDGET LLOYD: Dale was a gift from God, truly. And I always would instill in him that, son, you know, you are truly blessed, not only athletically but academically. And he'd say, ma, you know, you're right.

WILSON: He always gave 110 percent, she says. So one hot day in late September 2006, after a bruising defeat the day before, the 190-pound freshman defensive back headed to the university stadium for a light workout.

Ms. LLOYD: The light workout turned into a little bit more strenuous workout, and they did weightlifting and a lot of running. And during the running portion he collapsed. He passed away the following day.

WILSON: When she and her husband, Dale Lloyd Jr., arrived at the hospital, they were met by doctors who were initially baffled by his condition. Late into the night, they asked if he had the sickle cell trait. It turns out he did.

Dale had inherited the gene from his father. Sickle cell disease can be extremely debilitating, but the trait is benign in most circumstances. It never occurred to Dale's parents to have him tested.

Ms. LLOYD: We would always look for and make sure he has a good heart, because they always say, you know, that young people get out there and work out and sometimes their hearts give out with the strenuous workout. So we always had him checked out from top to bottom.

WILSON: The cause of death was a condition associated with sickle cell trait, the flat red blood cell sickle starving tissues of oxygen. Muscles break down, releasing toxins. It's brought on by extreme exertion, hot climate and high altitudes.

Until recently, most coaches and trainers were ignorant of the problem, says Scott Anderson, director of athletic training for the University of Oklahoma. He became aware of it about 14 years ago when one of his players collapsed.

Mr. SCOTT ANDERSON (Director of Athletic Training, University of Oklahoma): The physicians at the hospital recognized that he had sickle cell trait, but they said that's not what his problem is.

WILSON: The athlete survived, but Anderson investigated and found that his collapse was similar to others that had not ended so well.

Mr. ANDERSON: Deaths were occurring, and even as deaths occurred, those cases and events were not communicated to the profession as a whole.

WILSON: He started requiring athletes at the University of Oklahoma to be screened and urged members of the National Association of Athletic Trainers to recommend screening to all colleges. In 2007, they did.

Mr. ANDERSON: It doesn't matter whether they're playing football or another sport. It doesn't matter if they're a male athlete or a female athlete. It doesn't matter, you know, if they're African-American or Caucasian or Native American or whatever.

WILSON: Up to 20 athletes at Oklahoma have been found to have the sickle cell trait. Not all were African-American. In a culture of sport, known for pushing athletes to the breaking point, Anderson says he educates players to set limits.

Mr. ANDERSON: If they're experiencing undue fatigue, shortness of breath, a sensation of lower extremity, low back cramping, spasm, we want them to report those symptoms immediately.

WILSON: An athlete would then be withdrawn from training and allowed to recover. The point is not to exclude anyone from sports, he says, pointing out that at the National Football League it's estimated that 7 percent of the players have the sickle cell trait. That includes athletes like Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma's all-American linebacker, who now plays for the Atlanta Falcons.

Bridget Lloyd didn't know all this until 2006 when her son died. But she says the NCAA did.

Ms. LLOYD: You go and look on the Internet, you will find names and names and names of young people who should have had a young and productive lives that were cut short because the NCAA didn't inform them that this situation could affect your health.

WILSON: So the family sued the NCAA. As part of a settlement, the organization agreed to recommend that universities and colleges offered to screen all athletes. But Dr. Elliott Vichinsky, a hematologist at Children's Hospital, Oakland, worries that the policy hasn't been thought through.

Dr. ELLIOTT VICHINSKY (Director of Hematology, Children's Hospital): If you just have a willy-nilly go get tested and then go see somebody for counseling, while it is not mandatory, there's a tremendous medical legal pressure on them to this, why would I put a trait person out to play on Sunday when it's really hot? I may be liable.

WILSON: In the past, African-Americans were blocked from military service and certain kinds of employment if they carried the trait. Though 64 percent of colleges now screen for the sickle cell trait, it's no guarantee of safety. The University of Central Florida screened Ereck Plancher, a young freshman defensive player, for the sickle cell trait. He died during strenuous training.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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