Sudden Death Associated With Sickle Cell Trait Before and After Mandatory Screening

Sports Health. 2020 May/Jun;12(3):241-245. doi: 10.1177/1941738120915690. Epub 2020 Apr 9.


Background: Sickle cell trait (SCT) has been associated with an increased risk of sudden death in athletes during strenuous exercise. In August 2010, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began requiring athletes to be screened for SCT, provide proof of SCT status, or sign a waiver and launched an educational campaign for athletes, coaches, and medical staff. The impact of this program is unknown. The purpose of this study was to determine the incidence of death associated with sickle cell trait (daSCT) in NCAA athletes before and after legislation.

Hypothesis: NCAA SCT legislation will decrease the incidence of daSCT.

Study design: Observational study.

Level of evidence: Level 2.

Methods: A database of NCAA athlete deaths from 2000 to 2019 was reviewed for daSCT. A total of 8,309,050 athlete-years (AY) were included. Incidence of death was calculated before and after legislation.

Results: The incidence of daSCT in Division I (DI) football athletes before legislation (n = 9) was 1:28,145 AY and after legislation (n = 1) was 1:250,468 AY (relative risk [RR], 0.112; 95% CI, 0.003-0.811; P = 0.022), an 89% reduction in risk after legislation was enacted. The incidence of daSCT in African American DI football athletes before legislation (n = 9) was 1:12,519 AY and after legislation (n = 1) was 1:118,464 AY (RR, 0.106; 95% CI, 0.002-0.763; P = 0.017), also an 89% risk reduction after legislation was enacted. For all NCAA athletes, the incidence of daSCT was 1:489,749 AY before legislation (n = 10) and 1:1,705,780 AY after legislation (n = 2) (RR, 0.288; 95% CI, 0.031-1.347; P = 0.146).

Conclusion: The incidence of daSCT in DI football athletes has decreased significantly since legislation was enacted. Cases of daSCT outside of football are rare. It is unclear whether the decrease is related to screening for SCT, education, or both.

Clinical relevance: This is the first evidence that NCAA SCT legislation may save lives.

Keywords: NCAA; athlete; exertional death; football; sickle cell trait.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Death, Sudden / epidemiology*
  • Death, Sudden / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Mandatory Testing / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Sickle Cell Trait / complications*
  • Sickle Cell Trait / diagnosis*
  • Sports / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult