The Danger of Testing for Sickle Cell

Colleges are screening for the blood disorder, but will this be another round of discrimination?

By Aisha De Avila-Shin Nov 25, 2009

November 25, 2009

It has been three years since Dale Lloyd, a Black student at Rice University, collapsed during a light football workout and was rushed to the hospital. The next morning, he was pronounced dead. According to doctors, Lloyd died because of complications due to having the sickle cell trait.

As part of settling the lawsuit with the family, the National Collegiate Athletic Association recommended this fall that colleges screen all athletes for sickle cell. However, people who know the racial history of sickle cell testing are raising red flags.

In the 1970s, mandatory screening for the sickle cell trait occurred in the U.S. Army after four Black recruits died during basic training. The deaths were attributed to the sickling of the cells, and the federal government decided to bar people who had the trait from certain military sections, including the Air Force. Because one in 12 Blacks in the U.S. carries the sickle cell trait, the policy had a disproportionate impact on this racial group.

Nine years later, Stephen Pullens, a Black cadet, sued after being forced to resign from the Air Force Academy because he had the sickle cell trait. Pullens had already shown that he could work at high altitudes, and he was a champion hurdler. Due to his lawsuit, the requirement to be screened was revoked.

Were those four deaths in basic training due to having the sickle cell trait, or was the sickling of the cells a manifestation that happened after their deaths?

“We don’t have any empirical evidence showing who [and] at what altitudes has perished from physical exertion,” said Troy Duster, a professor of sociology at New York University who has worked on the Human Genome Project and is the author of Backdoor to Eugenics. “The important point here is that there are a lot of Black athletes with sickle cell trait who have no problems at high altitudes. So the question is, ‘What are the policy implications of screening people with sickle cell trait?’”

It’s not clear how many more colleges will take the recommendation to screen their athletes, but in a 2006 survey, 64 percent of Division I-A colleges already did the testing.

Duster has written a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine saying the NCAA should first review whether carrying the sickle cell trait is really a cause for worry and further investigate the impact the trait has on athletes.