Concussion Inc.’s ebook THE TED AGU PAPERS: A Black Life That Mattered — And the Secret History of a Covered-Up Death in University of California Football is available on Kindle-friendly devices at http://amzn.to/2aA2LDl. One hundred percent of royalties are being donated to sickle cell trait research and education.
by Irvin Muchnick
The recent conditioning drill death of football player Eric Goll at Chadron State College in Nebraska — on top of the covered-up death under similar circumstances of Ted Agu at the University of California-Berkeley in 2014 — comes attached to an astonishing factoid relative to death in football. This is data lurking under the radar of the current debate over the future of football, which usually focuses on traumatic brain injury. And the reason the discussion can’t get a foothold speaks volumes about both the sickness of Football America and the racialist politics that help enable it.
Both Agu and Goll carried the sickle cell trait (SCT). According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 12 African-Americans are SCT carriers. This is not the same as sickle cell disease, a condition characterized by an ongoing shortage of red blood cells. The trait is a more randomly menacing blood disorder: carriers experience no general health crisis, but are susceptible to catastrophic episodes of “exertional sickling” under certain conditions of all-out exercise sustained for a few minutes.
A leading researcher of SCT in football (though he eschews the spotlight) is Dr. E. Randy Eichner, a former team physician at the University of Oklahoma. Eichner was involved in uncovering knowledge of Agu’s SCT, which had been buried by Cal doctors and officials — criminally so in my view — before the Alameda County medical examiner learned of it and revised the official finding of cause of death to reflect it. Eichner also pointed out to Chadron State area journalists and others the possible SCT factor for Goll, who apparently had signed a medical waiver document, in lieu of disclosing the condition to the school’s football program.
Now here’s the shocker: According to a paper in press for the Journal of Athletic Training, authored by Scott Anderson, since 2000 there have been 26 deaths in Division 1 National Collegiate Athletic Association football training — and 11 have been from sickling. (Goll’s death is now yet another, but Chadron State is Division II.)
For the record, the other deaths are attributed to cardiac disease (9), heat stroke (5) and asthma (1 — the case of Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern in 2001, with which I am so familiar). Eichner told me, “These four most common causes of on-field (non-trauma) collapse of a football player who takes the field healthy are, by and large, different enough in setting and clinical features that, even judging only from early, sparse, media accounts we can sometimes make an educated guess that proves right.”
All this begs the question of why we hear so much about sickle cell disease but so little about sickle cell trait. The answer is that athletic prowess in general, excellence in football in particular, is such a perceived boon to the African-American community that interested nonprofits and the fundraisers for them prefer promoting awareness of the disease and ignoring awareness of the trait.
In stating and supporting this perspective, I want to be careful to emphasize that these are my words, not Eichner’s. But think about it for a second. It doesn’t take much all-out sprinting for a sickling collapse in football conditioning. Preston Birdsong, the Tennessee Tech player who died in 2000, was doing the identical 300-yard repeat shuttle-run “prove you’re a man” drill that Eric Goll was forced into two months ago in Nebraska.
By comparison, during the same 2000-16 period, there have been six directly pegged football trauma deaths. (Of course, I would argue that there is a larger number of less directly pegged deaths over time; and perhaps more important to the anti-football argument, a positively staggering toll of discrete disability and less documentable, but nonetheless real, costs to the quality of life and productivity of American males who buy into or are pushed into football.)
The conclusion is inescapable: Reckless coaches, such as Cal football coach Sonny Dykes and his strength and conditioning assistant, Damon Harrington, are killing young athletes in mere preparation for games.
The main goal of organizations such as the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America is to cure sickle cell anemia — the disease. Toward that end, they promote genetic counseling, which in turn allows SCT parents to make wise decisions on childbearing. But with respect to possible pathologies from simple SCT, these groups want to avoid stoking panic or undermining a popular activity. The message is that SCT is, for the most part, benign and compatible with a normal lifespan. And it is — but for everyday life, I say, not for football.
Underlying the political concern over exaggerating SCT is some historical background, as well. In the 1970s, well-meaning screening programs may have done more harm than good for a public confused about the difference between SCT and full-blown sickle cell anemia. The confusion had consequences, with some people losing jobs or health insurance, or suffering other discrimination.
The outcome — hardly benign either, from where I sit — has been the careful messaging that there is little to worry about from SCT.
A 1987 Army study found that black recruits with SCT were 30 times likelier to die during basic combat training than black recruits without SCT. The politically consensual solution was to become more vigilant about hydration. To this day, the Army does not screen recruits for SCT; the Navy, the Marines, and the Air Force do.
Sickle cell activists simply don’t want to hear from evidence of exertional sickling in football. What they say about the subject can be found in this statement at the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America website: “Given the lack of scientific evidence that substantiates a significant correlation between sickle cell trait in athletes and training related sudden death, SCDAA does not support screening of athletes for sickle cell trait as a means to reduce heat related illness or death in athletes who are carriers.”
In short, there will be absolutely no stigmatizing tolerated here. Public health consequences be damned.
So it goes in Football America — white, black, brown, yellow, and purple.