The NCAA weighs in on sickle-cell debate

By Ransom Cozzillio
October 6, 2010

Ransom Cozzillio

When student-athletes are dying, shouldn’t someone step in? Or could that precaution be inherently racist? In a potentially controversial but grossly under-reported decision, the NCAA has decided to implement a system for testing its athletes for sickle-cell trait. This trait, which causes a deformation in some red blood cells, can be dangerous when such a person is placed under athletic and aerobic strain. As justification, it has been noted that eight NCAA football players have died in the past decade as a result of sickle-cell complications on the football field.

It would appear that this new system of testing is merely designed to protect the players and avoid liability for the schools and the NCAA as a whole. While not officially stated yet, students testing positive may be made ineligible to play to avoid possible complications.

However, what may fall unnoticed is that the sickle-cell trait is almost exclusively prevalent in African-Americans (and those of African descent) and is virtually nonexistent in American Caucasians. This fact, some would argue, makes such a precautionary test automatically loaded against African-American athletes, and therefore racist. After all, how can a test be fair if you already know that only African-Americans are going to “fail?” With a student’s athletic career on the line isn’t this obviously racist?

No. To the casual observer or the overly-racially sensitive, this may seem to discriminate against African-American student-athletes. But we must realize that there is a difference between “racist” and “unfair but justified.”

This is obvious when we can take a charged word like “race” out of the equation for a minute. Take, for example, insurance rates. On an individual level, is it “fair” that young males have higher car insurance rates than anyone else, including young females? Not really, but considering young males get in more accidents than any other demographic, the higher rate is certainly justified.

So, is it fair that, due to testing, several African-American college athletes will surely be forced to stop playing while no white players will? Perhaps not. But given that doing nothing would probably lead to more deaths, enforced testing is certainly reasonable.

In fact, the NCAA, in a grand showing of its lack of altruism, has actually made this testing less biased. Athletes are actually allowed to opt out of testing as long as they sign a waiver indemnifying the NCAA of liability.

So while this shows that the NCAA doesn’t necessarily care about the health of their athletes as much as it cares about liability, it also shows that its callousness is colorblind. If any athlete wants to play, sickle-cell trait or not, they can.

Unfortunately, this whole possible controversy really points back to how hypersensitive the business of race makes us. That is not to say that we shouldn’t think about it and strive for fairness.

But when a program that is formed as a response to young men dying on the football field comes under fire for being racist, we need to examine our motives. Not everything that involves race is racist. This, as it turns out, is just a plain old case of the NCAA and affiliated colleges protecting themselves and their interests. There are certainly racial battles to fight with NCAA but this isn’t it.

-- MCT

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Ransom Cozzillio

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