Are Black Athlete Deaths Underreported? A Minnesota Research Team Says “Yes”

By Conaway B. Haskins III
Updated: June 29, 2005

The Black Athlete

RICHMOND, Va. — A national clearinghouse featuring information about untimely deaths of amateur and professional athletes is desperately reaching out to African American-focused media outlets for help.

Led by Dr. Barry Maron of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, the National Registry of Sudden Death in Young Athletes is a comprehensive warehouse for information related to all on or off-field deaths of athletes in the U.S. from grade school through the professional levels regardless of the circumstances surrounding them.

Dr. Maron is a leading authority on Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), which is widely considered to be the leading cause of sudden death in athletes. His research team scours media sources nationwide to generate case data on such incidents.

This collection of athlete death data began in 1985, and it focuses on young, trained athletes from youth league to the professional ranks who have died unexpectedly. To date, the project has accumulated information on over 600 sudden athlete deaths in which documented autopsies directly attributed the cause to HCM, a genetic disease causing the thickening of certain heart muscles, particularly those on the left side on the heart.

The disease is exacerbated by intense athletic training, and often shows no outward symptoms. Those with the condition silently suffer heart strain, altered blood chemistry, dehydration, and dangerous shifts in heart rate and blood pressure. When symptoms are present, they can include chest pain, shallowness of breath, palpitations, and fatigue, and if such signs are present, medical attention should be sought immediately.

Despite their success to date in developing the registry, Dr. Maron’s team has stumbled upon gaps in media coverage that may inadvertently result in hundreds of sports-related surprise fatalities going undocumented. Currently, the researchers rely heavily on national electronic and Internet-based media databases such as LEXIS/NEXIS, Burrell’s, and physician journals.

During the searches, Tammy Haas, a registered nurse and clinical researcher, observed that information on sudden deaths in African American athletes seemed incomplete. Since Blacks make up a disproportionate part of the American sporting world, one would expect to see the early demise of those athletes reported on a level in line with their participation. But, according to Haas, this is not necessarily the case.

After continuing her investigation by searching for coverage in the Black press, she was stunned to find that the vast majority of African American media sources were unavailable in the commonplace databases and search engines. She says, “We have recently become aware that a number of publications specific to the Black Press are not available through LEXIS/NEXIS.”

Starting with member publications of the National Newspaper Publishers Association – the leading network of Black print publications for which the Black Athlete Sports Network is the official sports wire service – Haas found that many lacked electronically-available archives.

She says, “Many of the individual newspapers comprising the Black Press have told us [that] they simply do not have the ability and/or the resources to assist us.” These papers are often mom-and-pop shops operating on shoestring budgets, and many have not yet adapted the kinds of Internet and electronic data storage technologies which are commonplace at larger, mainstream papers”.

Haas reports that some of the papers went as far as to invite the researchers to manually search their paper archives, something that is not feasible for the small research staff. Haas is troubled by the thought that this lack of media technology could exacerbate the underreporting of Black athlete deaths to the Registry, the general public, and most importantly, the medical community.

“Each event is crucial for the accuracy of the registry and for assessing the prevalence of sudden death among black athletes specifically,” she notes. Going further, she warns bluntly that “the number of deaths in African American athletes may be dramatically underreported.”

In an effort to get the word out to the widest possible audience, Ms.Haas contacted the Black Athlete Sports Network in hopes of generating much-needed attention for the Registry among the Black press. She asserts that “it is our hope that [BASN] will be able to assist us in getting this information out to members of the Black Press that are not accessible to us.”

“This is truly a life or death issue and the researchers believe that “this matter is something that the Black Press should be interested in and [we] are looking for resources…to help us identify a more accurate event rate for sudden death in black athletes.”

She feels that better documentation of sudden Black athlete deaths may lead to earlier detection of HCM and other potentially-fatal cardiovascular conditions. If some, through screening, treatment and prevention, more African American lives can be saved.

She believes that “if the smaller publications could be reached, we could solicit notification of African-American athlete deaths which occurred in communities whose newspapers are not loaded onto LEXIS/NEXIS” and others. She encourages any and all media outlets with archives reporting Black athlete deaths to contact her.

With the Heart Institute having now issued the call to arms, it now falls to the Black media – this network included – to push further. The future of countless young African American men and women could be at stake. Action must be taken to ensure that a better accounting and publicizing of Black athlete deaths is undertaken.

For more information, the National Registry of Sudden Death in Young Athletes can be found online at: