By Luke Atkinson
The Oklahoma Daily, University of Oklahoma
Dale Lloyd II, a running back from Rice University, is sprinting down the field during his team’s conditioning camp. The following morning he is dead and most don’t understand why.
Doctors later find he had the sickle cell trait and begin piecing together a puzzle that has unknowingly caused the death of several NCAA athletes. Following the 19-year-old’s death in 2006, the NCAA began implementing testing programs for athletes to take precautions against the mysterious killer.
Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer for the Sooners, is the co-chair of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association task force for sickle cell traits, and said the knowledge about sickle cell-related deaths is too little.
Anderson said athletes with sickle cell traits can have significant problems when they over exert themselves, which may lead to death.
“One of the consequences of exertional sickling is rhabdomyolysis,” Anderson said. “It’s the breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue. As it breaks down, it creates toxins. This can cause kidney failure, and can affect the heart and cause death.”
According to NATA’s task force, rhabdomyolysis is the rapid breakdown of muscles starved for blood. These muscles become starved for blood because sickled cells may become “logjammed” in blood vessels, causing players to slump to the ground from weak muscles.
NATA says this can be common in athletes who aren’t given an opportunity to rest during long conditioning exercises.
The task force said the harder and faster athletes work, the earlier and greater the sickling can become, which they believe explains the earlier collapse of college football players rather than long-distance runners.Anderson said these symptoms are not related to a disease players can contract. Instead, the traits are inherited.
“The trait is inherited, it’s not a disease,” Anderson said. “It can’t be prevented or cured. [Sickle cell trait] can even be beneficial because it protects you against malaria. It’s largely a benign condition.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, sickle cell is common in approximately one in 5,000 black individuals, and is found in tropical and sub-tropical cultures where malaria is common.
NATA believes of the 136 sudden, non-traumatic sports deaths in high school and college over the past decade, five percent were from exertional sickling.
According to NCAA guidelines, athletes can be voluntarily screened by blood tests to help their training staff take the proper precautions to ensure their safety. Anderson said his staff takes the same precautions in order to educate the players and coaching staff of any risks.
“We have a standard component screening, a medical history questionnaire and physical examinations,” he said. “Most athletes, if they have sickle cell, are unaware. As we gain the information through screening, we take precautions and educate the athlete, what it is or is not, what precautions they should take.”
Although players undergo heavier conditioning in practices than they would during a game, Anderson said there are still precautions being taken.
“Game time has a diminished risk [for sickling], there is a chance of rest and recovery,” he said. “A play lasts a few seconds then it’s over. We’ve seen some evidence in a game in running backs running a quick pace offense, like several running plays in a row with the same back. But the only real risk and setting for death are conditioning events.”
The NCAA Handbook states it hopes the research will help trainers further understand exertional sickling and reduce the number of deaths associated with sickle cell traits.Unforunately, it is too late for players like Dale Lloyd II, but the research and precautions taken by Anderson and his staff may someday save lives.