Special Considerations for Athletes With Sickle Cell Trait

The recent death of football student-athlete, Jordan McNair, at the University of Maryland is reminiscent of the death suffered by Houston’s own Devaughn Darling at Florida State University in February 2001. It’s not a painful conclusion to come to in both cases that the coach went too far. Although sickle cell trait has not been reported to have played a role in McNair’s death, the similarities between he and Darling’s death can’t go unnoticed. Both were over exhausted in an off-season football workout. Exertion, elevation, and dehydration do not have to equal death for athletes but too often, does. Why? One could argue that enough will be enough with the coach says enough. Athletic trainers may be the health authority on paper, but the ultimate power of who determines when an athlete has reached his/her limit is not even the athlete – it’s the coach.

So what will it take to ensure that coaches end these deadly rituals? When can it be expected that they will stop putting their players in the position of never quitting even when their bodies quit? How many more athletes have to die or be seriously injured before things change for the better? Why are they creating and cultivating a culture where student-athletes choose their team or sport over their own lives? Unfortunately Darling and McNair are only two of many athletes that have died this way. Exertion does not have to kill. Even though exertion is a risk factor for sickle cell trait, it does not have to kill.

Sickle cell trait is classified as the top non-injury killer of athletes. Every athlete that has sickle cell trait does not die while practicing or playing. In the National Football League, 7% of athletes have sickle cell trait. Devaughn Darling’s identical twin brother Devard is also a sickle cell trait carrier. He survived the same off-season practice at FSU in 2001. He went on to play professionally for eight years in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, and the Houston Texans. “Even though I’m retired, I still work out and challenge my body on a regular basis, “ said Darling. “But, I know my limits, and I work within them.” In the most basic terms, athletes must be allowed to warm-up to maximum rigor, be allowed intermittent recovery and be allowed hydration as needed. An interesting fact regarding exertional sickling deaths, the majority of them take place in practice or conditioning workouts, often on the first day, within the first hour of the workout.

Unfortunately, another similar death occurred in the Houston area at Rice University (RU) with football student-athlete, Dale Lloyd died a day after collapsing during a conditioning workout in 2006. University of Central Florida (UCF) football student-athlete, Ereck Plancher died in 2008 during the first workout after Spring Break where the head coach is reported to have ordered all athletic trainers & water out of condition workout. Ted Agu, a University of California football student-athlete died in 2015 as a result of a workout under the supervision of the same head strength & conditioning coach responsible in UCF’s Ereck Plancher some seven years prior. Also in 2015, Shanice Clark, a senior women’s basketball student-athlete at the California University at Pennsylvania was said initially to have choked on gum, but her death later ruled to be caused by acute rhabdomyolysis and sickle cell trait. Eric Goll died on the first day of workouts at Chadron State University in 2016 after transferring from Florida A&M University, where he learned he had sickle cell trait via the mandated National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) screening mandate.

Sickle Cell Trait extertional death, also known as exertional sickling has stricken those much younger, some shown in the photo below. Kourtni Livingston a 14-year-old female basketball player in Dallas, TX in 2002; Karson Cross, a 14-year-old white male football athlete died within the first day of a pre-season conditioning workout at Pace High School in Greensboro, North Carolina ; Olivier Louis, 15, of Orlando, Florida in 2010; Jamelle Johnson, 11 and Bobby Stephens Jr., 12, both of the Tampa Bay Football League, both died in 2006; Isaiah Laurencin, 16, of Broward County, Florida died in 2011.

People with sickle cell trait are described to be as unique as snowflakes. No sickle cell trait carrier’s experience will be identical to the next carrier, even in the case of identical twin carriers of sickle cell trait. The As One Foundation, the charity that Devard Darling founded in honor of his twin brother, Devaughn, is leading the charge to empower young people – athletes or non-athletes with universal sickle cell education. Everyone benefits from proper hydration practices. Everyone should know their sickle cell status and thoroughly understand that the associated risk factors, which are dehydration, elevation, and exertion. Emerging research contrasts the common belief that sickle cell trait is a benign condition. Sickle cell trait is not just a black or African-American condition. It is found in people of African, Asian, Indian, Italian, Irish, Mediterranean, Greek and Turkish descent – basically anyone. It’s really more of a bloodline condition versus skin color.

About the Author

Tomia Austin, DrPH, a behavioral scientist, health educator and researcher is also the Executive Director of the As One Foundation that was established with a mission to help empower youth to unlock & unleash their full potential through athletics, education and spiritual enrichment. Since the foundation was also established to honor the memory of the founder’s late brother who died of dehydration complicated by sickle cell trait, Tomia authored a program – Operation Hydration – to bring awareness to sickle cell trait and promote hydration as prevention of it’s adverse effects such as exertional sickling. Under Dr. Austin’s leadership the new mission of the foundation became to educate and increase awareness of sickle cell trait while encouraging youth to achieve their dreams in the face of life’s challenges.

Dr. Austin’s nearly 20 years of dedicated work in the higher education and not-for-profit sectors fuels her pursuit of health literacy for disadvantaged populations – especially young athletes of color. Her work focus and research interest areas include genetics, sickle cell anemia and sickle cell trait, dehydration, asthma, youth sports, high school, college and professional athletics, physical activity and obesity among populations of African, Caribbean, Asian, Indian, Latin, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Mediterranean descent. Dr. Austin has had experience in community settings on local, county, state, national and international levels, laying the foundation for globally impactful contributions to the research.

About the As One Foundation

The mission of As One Foundation is to educate and increase awareness of SCT while encouraging youth to achieve their dreams in the face of life’s challenges. On Feb. 26, 2001, Devaughn Darling lost his life due to SCT exertion during a spring football conditioning workout at Florida State University. His identical twin brother, Devard Darling, persevered after the tragedy to become an NFL star, but his most noteworthy accomplishment was establishing the As One Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to honoring Devaughn’s life while elevating awareness of SCT. For more information on As One Foundation or to book a Sickle cell trait Education presentation, to inquire about sponsorship or to make a generous donation, visit www.AsOneFoundation.org, and @AsOneFoundation on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube or email Tomia@AsOneFoundation.org.