Jan 29, 2015
Mandate Sickle Cell Trait Testing?

By Greg Scholand

The March 2008 death of University of Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher, who collapsed after a supervised workout and was pronounced dead at a hospital hours later, was the most recent wake-up call for the athletics world about the dangers of sickle cell trait. The trait, which Plancher had, increases the likelihood of exertional rhabdomyolysis and other health problems during hard workouts, especially in hot weather.

Since the tragedy at UCF, there have been calls to implement broader screening for sickle cell trait, which can be detected using a simple $5 blood test. The NCAA has become a leading voice in this effort, in part due to a settlement reached with the family of a Rice University athlete who died in 2006 due to complications related to the genetic trait.

The NCAA Division I Legislative Council is currently considering a proposal that would make a sickle cell solubility test (SST) a required part of pre-participation physicals. If passed, it would apply to D-I athletes in all sports, including incoming freshmen who participate in voluntary summer workouts on campus. Proposed jointly by Conference USA and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the new rule would take effect in August 2010.

The NATA’s position statement on sickle cell trait (PDF) indicates that it is one of the top three causes of non-traumatic sports deaths among high school and college athletes. Those who test positive don’t need to give up sports–in fact, some NFL players have sickle cell trait, and the NFL Players Association sponsors a campaign to raise funds and awareness of the condition. But special precautions should be taken with athletes who have the trait, including a more careful approach to acclimatization and gradual increases in workload, diligent monitoring, and using caution when exercising at high altitudes.

The Division I proposal, which was first introduced in July, has already won the support of the NCAA’s Championships/Sports Management Cabinet and the Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet. There are still a few details to hammer out, such as whether athletes should be able to satisfy the screening requirement by submitting written proof of a prior SST, which can be kept on file by the athletic department. But it appears there’s a strong chance the proposal will be enacted in the coming months.

This new screening rule seems like a no-brainer: Is there any compelling reason not to test? It’s hard to imagine a better use for $5, especially when compared to the potential cost of not knowing an athlete has sickle cell trait. And isn’t it time for Divisions II and III to follow suit?

Greg Scholand is Managing Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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