BASN’s Sports & Health Spotlight

By Kyle Hightower and Andrea Adelson
Updated: July 19, 2008

ORLANDO – Athletes who possess the sickle-cell trait can play competitive sports but should be monitored by trainers if they participate in intense workouts, according to guidelines published by both the NCAA and the National Athletic Trainers Association.

The Orange County medical examiner found that symptoms associated with sickle-cell trait caused UCF football player Ereck Plancher to collapse and die after an off-season workout on March 18.

The 2008-09 NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook urges athletic trainers to exercise caution when supervising athletes diagnosed with the blood disorder, as UCF officials confirm Plancher was in 2007.

Sickle-cell trait can hamper the ability of cells to carry oxygen when triggered by physical stress, a condition called sickling.

“The harder and faster athletes go, the earlier and greater the sickling,” the handbook states. “Sickling can begin in only two to three minutes of sprinting, or in any other all-out exertion of sustained effort, thus quickly increasing the risk of collapse.”

“Athletes with sickle-cell trait cannot be conditioned out of the trait and coaches pushing these athletes beyond their normal physiological response to stop and recover place these athletes at an increased risk of collapse.”

Even the most fit athletes with the trait can experience a collapse, the NCAA warns.

Plancher is the 10th athlete between the ages of 12 and 19 to die after intense physical exertion from complications related to sickle-cell trait, according to NATA, which in 2007 released a “consensus statement” in which it warned trainers across the country that athletes with the sickle-cell trait were at risk during “intense exertion.”

Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma and co-chair on the task force that produced the NATA statement, said there was a lack of knowledge about the trait within the athletic population so the goal was to educate across the board.

NATA suggests screening athletes for the trait and says 64 percent of Division I-A schools who responded to a survey do test for it. UCF is among those schools.

Anderson said NATA may someday recommend mandatory screening.

“The position statement will be science based, defensible and will give the opportunity to stand up and say screening is a standard, these precautions should be taken,” Anderson said.

“That does not exist at this point in time. But that’s what I’m working on.”

The NCAA guidelines, first published in 1975 and revised as recently as last month, conclude with 12 precautions, including allowing athletes with sickle-cell trait to “set their own pace” and have “adequate rest and recovery between repetitions, especially during ‘gassers’ and intense mat drills.”

UCF officials have confirmed that Plancher participated in both timed sprints and mat drills during his final workout.

NCAA officials are aware of the NATA’s statement, but testing is a school decision.

“If our members decide it is important to have all schools screen for this trait, they can propose legislation through our committee structure and then it would go to membership for a vote,” said NCAA spokesperson Jennifer Kearns.

Around the state, approaches vary.

UCF spokesman Grant Heston said the school “educates our student-athletes about what sickle-cell trait means, and doesn’t mean, to them. As with all of our student-athletes, our medical staff and trainers monitor their workouts, practices and games. We encourage student-athletes to immediately report any problems to our medical staff and trainers.”

Florida State tests for sickle-cell trait during athletes’ physical examinations. If an FSU athlete tests positive, then university doctors and medical staff counsel him or her about the dangers of sickle cell and the precautions athletes should follow, said Randy Oravetz, FSU’s director of Sports Medicine.

FSU athletes with the trait, for instance, are instructed to remain well hydrated at all times.

“There’s no special waiver [athletes with sickle have to sign],” Oravetz said. “[The issues] just need to be appropriately discussed . . . you just hope they’re listening.”

Miami spokesman Mark Pray said UM tests all athletes. Efforts to reach trainers at Florida were unsuccessful Friday.

Jacksonville Coach Kerwin Bell said he’s never encountered a player with the sickle-cell trait, but said he trusts his trainers to give him word on a player and an exact condition.

“A lot of these things happen without any notice at all,” Bell said. “It’s hard . . . The trainers know more than I do. If anything happens, they are in direct care. I don’t want it on my plate.”

NOTE: Staff writers Andrew Carter, Jeremy Fowler, Iliana Limon, Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Robyn Shelton contributed to this report.