NCAA’s Mandatory Sickle Cell Testing Could Impact Black Athletes

By Julianne Hing Apr 13, 2010

Last year, ColorLines reported on a proposed new rule from the NCAA that would require sickle cell testing for all Division I athletes. The NY Times reports that NCAA member conferences are set to vote sometime this week in Indianapolis, and it’s uncertain whether the controversial rule will pass. Sickle cell traits appear unevenly in different racial groups: 1 in 12 Black people in the U.S. carries the trait, which, when agitated by high altitudes and physical activity, is thought to contribute to illness and even death. Less than one percent of white people carry the trait. In the last decade, 21 football players have fallen ill during training and later died, and eight of those athletes was found to have sickle cell traits. The research so far is inconclusive. Aisha De Avila-Shin, reporting for ColorLines, wrote:

“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?’”

Some fear that Black athletes will be excluded from college sports as a result of the new policy. But it’s not just a matter of knowing, because four of the athletes who died as a result of extreme training actually had already been screened. Their coaches knew their players’ vulnerability. The proposed rule came out as part of a settlement after the 2006 death of Dale Lloyd II, a student at Rice University who was 19 when he collapsed on the football field and later died from sickle cell complications.