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Nov. 11, 2010

In protecting athletes, colleges can't be fickle with sickle

by Gardi Royce, Page Editor
With every fallen leaf and degree drop in temperature, the weather is telling us that it's that time of season again. That season in which boys become men and proven players lead their teams to victory. It's time for football playoffs. From Montgomery County divisions to the Bowl Championship Series, teams will gear up for what they've been waiting for all year: the heralded football playoffs. Yet the road to the post season is one of intense dedication and practices, something for which not every athlete's body is prepared.

In this day and age of bone-crushing hits and highlight films, it's easy to get caught up in the "tough guy" mentality of football. But the truth remains that athletes aren't invincible, and as this recent decision proves, the issue of athletes' safety is not being overlooked. Starting this year, all Division I colleges will be required to test their athletes for the Sickle Cell Anemic trait, a gene that makes carriers more susceptible to exhaustion and organ failure. While many people live with this trait normally, it becomes a legitimate danger when paired with excessive physical activity. The decision is one that should be upheld and continue to provide safety for athletes.

Under the new decision, all athletes must be tested for this trait. If they test positively, they will be under increased supervision to ensure they do not become dangerously exhausted or fatigued. While this should keep athletes safe, many groups, including the Sickle Cell Anemia Association of America, have protested against this action, claiming it will lead to discrimination and racial prejudices. Since eight percent of black individuals carry the trait as opposed to .05 percent of Latinos and .02 of whites, according to ESPN, it does seem likely that more black athletes will test positively. The groups believe that this will cause coaches to select their players not solely on athletic skill and character and may lead to less black's being selected for scholarships. However, these statistics and views ignore the gaping reality that if left undiagnosed, sickle cell anemia can be deadly for athletes.

Scientists and doctors can preach for years about an impending threat but it takes a real life event to make people pay attention. A day after a tough football practice in 2006, Rice University football player Dale Lloyd II suddenly died following a conditioning workout. His death was attributed to an undiagnosed sickle cell trait that made him more susceptible to dehydration, physical exhaustion and an inability to recover from intense physical activity.

While this case and its ensuing lawsuit were the catalysts for the recent NCAA decision, it is one of many. In the last decade alone, over 10 Division I football players have died suddenly as a result of complications due to their sickle cell trait. If this testing is prevented, thousands of athletes will take the field each year not knowing whether they have a trait that could increase the likelihood of their deaths. While issues of equality are important, compared to cases of life and death they become less important.

While no coach would ever publicly admit it, a player with the sickle cell trait could potentially be a liability if they were to get injured as a result of the disease and therefore may not be offered a scholarship or chance to play. However, the University of Maryland has been testing athletes for sickle cell since 2005 with no complaints or issues. Their results are in no way connected to the recruitment process and are only being used for players' safety. They have still remained one of the most competitive schools in the Atlantic Coastal Conference, continuing their history of attracting the best athletes in the country.

While the testing is crucial to ensure the athletes, there are some guidelines that should be followed. It's important that the test is not required for incoming freshman until they've signed the letters of intent and have been accepted onto the team. This will significantly reduce the amount of confusion and debate over accepting players based on their genetic traits.

Though throughout American history we have seen famous marches and protests for equality, the basic issue of life and death should take precedence in any circumstance. In a easily offended and politically sensitive society, it's important to remember that when issues of life and death are on the line, the ultimate priority should be ensuring the safety of those individuals at risk, rather than debate over less threatening issues.



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