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Trait gets closer look by NCAA, agencies

Devaughn Darling's death is directing more attention to the sickle cell trait he possessed.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

At this time last year, people who carried the rare sickle cell trait were encouraged to lead normal, active lives.

In its guidelines for student-athletes with the trait, the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports referred to it as a "benign condition" that shouldn't restrict or limit the individual. The Sickle Cell Disease Association of America echoed that view in its literature for the estimated 2.5-million Americans, predominantly African-Americans, who inherited one abnormal hemoglobin gene.

But on Feb. 26, Florida State freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling collapsed and died after a strenuous workout. An autopsy revealed no definitive morphological cause of death, but the medical examiner noted that Darling had the sickle cell trait. An increasing amount of anecdotal evidence suggests the trait could be a factor in sudden, unexpected death.

"Since that incident, more and more people affected by the trait have come forward and explained to us some of the problems they've encountered," said Frank Reddick, the director of Florida's headquarters for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. "We didn't have that kind of information before."

Reddick, for one, had heard of minor complications such as fatigue and some joint pain anecdotally linked to the trait. Most occurred at higher altitudes.

But a death? Never before, he said.

"From a medical standpoint, we've decided to take a look at this again," he said, adding that his national association is now recommending people with the trait participate in athletics on a "limited scope."

The NCAA also is concerned, but restricting the student-athlete is drastic, especially given that the medical community is divided about potential risks.

Dr. Randy Eichner, a professor of medicine at Oklahoma who has studied exercise-induced deaths of people with sickle cell trait for more than a decade, has been commissioned to recommend changes to the NCAA's guidelines that were written in 1975 and revised in 1998. The Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports meets in June.

"I'm making very slow progress on drafting proposals," he said in an e-mail to the Times.

That doesn't surprise Dr. Bryan Smith, the chairman of the NCAA's committee.

"Not everybody who has the trait has serious manifestations, and that's one of the real problems we're running into right now in terms of formulating recommendations," he said.

Screening for the trait, neither required nor encouraged by the NCAA, is sure to be discussed. FSU does screen, which is how Darling and his identical twin, Devard, learned they inherited the gene. But what coaches and trainers do with the information likely will dominate talks.

Current NCAA guidelines emphasize that all athletes should avoid dehydration and that's especially vital for someone with sickle cell trait. Smith said the trait makes it more difficult to retain water. The Darling family intends to sue FSU, alleging among other things that Devaughn was deprived of water.

"No one came out and definitively said the trait was the cause of death," Smith said. "It puts you in kind of a quandary as to where you go from there."

Most importantly, however, he said his group has received a research proposal to collect sorely needed data and is "seriously considering" funding it. The NCAA has helped fund studies on creatine, concussions, anterior cruciate ligament injuries and weight loss in wrestlers. The next available budgetary cycle begins in September.

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