A Costly Decision: Sickle Cell Trait Testing of NCAA Student-Athletes

Today’s post is by someone I hope becomes a regular contributor to BusinessofCollegeSports.com, Alicia Jessop. Alicia is a female attorney with a passion for sports, which of course means she reminds me of me. Hope you all enjoy her terrific look at sick cell trait testing in the NCAA.

By Alicia Jessop, author of RulingSports.com

Shuttle drills.  Mat drills.  And of course, the ever-despised suicide drills.

NCAA Football players will test their physical prowess under the blazing summer sun in coming weeks, when they report to their respective campuses to begin training camp for the upcoming season.

However, Division II and Division III NCAA Football players may be hitting the field ignorant of whether they are carriers of the genetic trait “. . . linked to at least nine of the 21 deaths of collegiate football players since 2000.”

A person with “one gene for sickle hemoglobin and one gene for normal hemoglobin” is said to be a carrier for sickle cell trait.  While normal hemoglobin moves easily through blood vessels, sickle hemoglobin “. . . tend to cluster together, and cannot easily move through blood vessels.”  The clustering of sickle cells “. . . causes a blockage [which] stops the movement of oxygen-carrying blood.”  Generally undetected by its carriers, sickle cell trait carriers face complications, including death, when encountering “. . . intense, stressful conditions, exhaustion, [and] hypoxia (low oxygen).”

As of August 1, 2010, NCAA Division I institutions are required to test incoming student-athletes for sickle cell trait.  The NCAA recommended testing for sickle cell trait after a settlement was reached in a case brought against Rice University by the parents of Dale Lloyd II, who died from complications of sickle cell trait after completing a Rice University Football team conditioning workout in 2006.   However, under the current NCAA legislation, Division I student-athletes may sign a written waiver to opt out of the testing if they know “. . . the risks associated with sickle cell trait. . .”

In contrast, NCAA Divisions II and III do not mandate sickle cell testing of student-athletes.  Recently, the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport recommended that Divisions II and III require “. . . sickle cell trait testing for all student-athletes. . . beginning with the 2012 academic year.”  If NCAA legislation on this issue is supported, it will be voted on at the 2012 NCAA Convention.

In deciding whether to move forward with legislation mandating the testing of student-athletes for sickle cell trait, NCAA Division II and Division III leaders must consider the costs of not testing student-athletes for sickle cell trait.

On June 30, 2011, a Florida jury awarded the parents of former University of Central Florida (“UCF”) football player Ereck Plancher $10 million in their wrongful death lawsuit against the UCF Athletic Association.  18 years old when he passed away on March 18, 2008, Plancher died after a preseason UCF Football team workout.  Testimony throughout the trial proved that Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait.   Although UCF Director of Athletics Keith Tribble testified that UCF required the testing of all African-American athletes for sickle cell trait, Plancher’s parents maintained that Plancher “. . . was never told he tested positive for the trait.

In awarding the $10 million judgment, “. . . jurors found the athletic association was negligent and failed to do everything possible to save Plancher’s life.”  Attorneys for the UCF Athletic Association indicated it would appeal the judgment.  Regardless of the outcome of an appeal, the judgment entered in the Plancher trial demonstrates the high damages a jury is willing to award when finding a university negligent in the death of a student-athlete resulting from complications of sickle cell trait.

When considering the damages imposed by juries, and more importantly the costs to human lives, the $10 to $15 dollars that tests used to diagnose sickle cell trait cost is minuscule.  Thus, weighing the cost-benefit analysis of adopting legislation requiring sickle cell trait testing, requires NCAA Divisions II and III to at a minimum, approve legislation mirroring current NCAA Division I requirements.

It appears that this legislation would be welcomed by NCAA Division II and Division III institutions.

In 2011, the University of West Florida Argos (“UWF”) won the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship.  Kelly Russ is the Interim Director of University Communications and External Relations at UWF.  In discussing UWF’s policy related to testing student-athletes for sickle cell trait, Russ explained that UWF verifies the student-athlete’s “family history of sickle cell trait. If there is a family history of sickle cell trait, [UWF sends student-athletes] to the doctor for blood testing.”

In 2010, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks (“UWW”) won the NCAA Division III Football Championship.  University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Athletics Director Paul Plinske indicated that the UWW “Sports Medicine staff looks over the health history forms to see if student-athletes have indicated their sickle cell status.  If they have not, then the sports medicine staff talks with the student-athlete to get testing information and/or encourages them to go and get tested.”  Thereafter, Plinske noted that UWW encourages its “student-athletes to follow-through and get this test completed if they have not already done so.”

These responses from members of Division II and Division III Championship-winning institutions, along with the NCAA’s own estimate that 40 percent of Division II and Division III programs test for sickle cell trait, signal the readiness of Division II and Division III institutions to follow Division I’s course and require testing of student-athletes for sickle cell trait.

In addition to mandating testing, all Divisions must approve legislation requiring the notification of student-athletes of their status as a sickle cell trait carrier.  Additionally, education and training methods must be adopted which address the special conditioning needs of those student-athletes that are carriers of sickle cell trait.

These measures must be adopted across-the-board in the NCAA, because the business and personal costs of not doing so are too great.

(Visit RulingSports.com on Saturday for a discussion of the legal implications of not allowing student-athletes to waive the sickle cell trait test).

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