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NCAA's sickle cell screening hints at discrimination

Starting this year, the NCAA requires all students in division 1 sports to be screened for sickle cell trait.  The mandate stems from a lawsuit over the 2006 post-practice death of Dale Lloyd II, a Rice freshman football player who was a carrier for sickle cell.  In what might be a move to prevent future law suits, the NCAA could be inadvertently setting the stage for genetic profiling and discrimination.

According to the policy, officials will monitor and condition carriers more carefully than other students, ensuring that carriers won't overexert themselves.  In essence, carriers will be singled out, which can lead to stigmatization and possible loss of future employment.  How will screening results be kept private?  It will be easy enough for professional scouts to see who is receiving special treatment during practices and games. 

There's no reason to isolate sickle cell carriers with different conditioning, when a general improvement on training practices will help everyone (something the military has already learned).  All athletes can benefit from better care, such as more hydration and rest in a sweltering day.  The NCAA does provide an option to decline screening with a waiver of liability.  However, students could still suffer for refusing the test, like receive negative attention from peers, athletic officials and coaches.

Being a carrier of sickle cell trait is not the same as actually having sickle cell anemia.  Many carriers live out their lives without incident, so NCAA's mandate could be disproportional to genuine risk.  There are also many other factors that put players at risk of death from overexertion.  When genetic testing becomes more sophisticated, should the NCAA mandate screening for cardiac arrhythmia and other risk factors, as well?  Where would we draw the line?

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