Recently, a particular college football coach has justified his support for a rule that would allow substitution of defensive players within the first 10 sec of the play clock by claiming that this is a player safety issue. He has stated that he is concerned about his players that have sickle cell trait and how the exertion of playing defense may trigger sickling and death. Is this really a concern for defensive players during a game? It is true that sickle cell trait occurs in about 8% of those athletes whose ethnic backgrounds may put them at risk. It is also true that athletes with sickle cell trait have died suddenly after exertion. However, when you look closer at the data, this coach’s justification dries up. First, of the 20 football players (in particular) with sickle cell trait that have died in the last 10 years, all 20 died during or immediately after extreme and long conditioning drills and usually early in the season. None died during a game. Let me repeat, “none died during a game or right after”. In fact, the American Society of Hematology says that athletes with sickle cell trait can participate in sports as long as they take the same precautions that all athletes take to prevent heat-related injuries – in other words, they need to stay hydrated and rest when appropriate. This recommendation is backed up by the National Athletic Trainers Association as well as several other professional societies – and has been since 2007! Again, where sickle cell trait has been problematic has been when extreme conditioning drills have been conducted without appropriate fluid and rest. So, can Sickle Cell Trait be a problem during a game? Probably not –during a game, the pace is not sustained as long as it is in any of the extreme long conditioning drills – witness that in the 5 year period from 2008-2012, the average was 2.31 plays/min – or almost 26 seconds from one play to the next – with 12-16 seconds of that time at rest. So is it possible that a defensive player may have an issue during a game from sickle cell trait – yes? Is it probable? No. But look at it another way – why isn’t this coach concerned about his offensive players, or basketball players, or soccer players, or track and field athletes. The same concerns apply to these athletes as to the defensive football players.
In the end, concern for players’ safety is admirable – but let’s really figure out what is a probable safety issue versus an issue that has an extremely small possibility of occurring before you start to change a fundamental aspect of a sport. There’s more information and discussion about this issue at HuffinesInstitute.org. Until next week, we hope you have an active and healthy week.
Learn More About the Huffines Human Performance Minute on “Slowing Down Football for Sickle-Cell Trait: Justified or Strategy in Disguise?”
Be sure to check out future weekly Huffines Institute Human Performance Minute broadcasts at TexAgs SportsRadio (The Zone 1150 AM) every Wednesday morning at 10:45am. If you missed it you can listen to it here!