Allegheny College AD and incoming Management Council vice chair Portia Hoeg spoke in favor of the sickle cell proposal at the Division III business session.
By Gary Brown
After a year of education and debate, Division III delegates at Saturday’s business session adopted a proposal requiring confirmation of sickle cell trait status for all student-athletes no later than the 2014-15 academic year, including mandatory confirmation of status for all incoming student-athletes (first-year and transfers) in 2013-14.
The final tally was as close as expected (254-200-15), given the discussion throughout the last year to vet membership concerns about costs, logistics and how the sickle cell proposal related to other medical issues.
The vote is a culmination of a year-long debate after a related proposal was referred from the floor at last year’s Convention. That one also required confirmation status but wasn’t as comprehensive or as educationally grounded as this year’s version. This year’s proposal is a result of collaboration with the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, the group to which the 2012 proposal was referred.
“This is not simply about testing,” said Presidents Council vice chair Jack Ohle, who moved the proposal from the Convention floor, “but a wholistic approach centered on the benefits of knowing one’s trait status, knowing the associated risks and implementing the proper accomodations to allow our student-athletes to practice and compete in the safest environment.
“The key point is that our student-athletes are safer knowing their status and allowing our institutions to accommodate for that status. For a small, yet equally important, number of student-athletes, this knowledge is a matter of life or death.”
Beginning Aug. 1, when the legislation becomes effective, schools must confirm the sickle cell trait status of incoming student-athletes before participation in intercollegiate athletics in one of the following manners:
The proposal is similar to legislation already adopted in Divisions I and II, though the educational component embedded in Division III’s version is unique. Division I adopted its sickle cell trait status confirmation requirement in 2011, while Division II passed its legislation last year.
When last year’s proposal was referred, it was done so based on the membership not knowing enough about its intent or ramifications, but the debate on the floor at Saturday’s business session indicated that the educational void had been filled. In a 40-minute discussion, several speakers chimed in, including some who opposed the proposal from a variety of philosophical, medical and logistical perspectives.
Issues that had been raised over the last year emerged again from the Convention floor. One delegate challenged the validity of the testing more than costs of the test itself. “Student-athlete well-being always will trump costs, but (my opposition) is a reaction to the lack of medical evidence and data, not costs,” he said.
Several members had questions about the legal and medical ramifications of the proposal, which were addressed by Scott Bearby, NCAA deputy general counsel, and the NCAA’s new chief medical officer, Brian Hainline.
Hainline said, “As a scientist, I know one direction we need to go. We need to go to a place where we demand to know with absolute certainty what the risks are and what the benefits are. Sometimes we just have to go forward with proposals we believe are protective of not only the athletes but also the institutions. And that is what the NCAA has done in this case. We do know with certainty that more research must be done. At this point we have to take an approach that makes sense for our organization, for individual student-athletes and individual member institutions. For this reason I very solidly support this proposal.”
(Read more from Hainline in a question-and-answer document prepared for Division III members in advance of the Convention.)
Other delegates were concerned about what they anticipate will be a high opt-out rate, which subsequently places the educational burden on the institution. But proposal advocates suggested strongly that whatever burden the legislation causes is worth knowing the sickle cell trait status of all student-athletes.
Livingston Alexander, a member of the Presidents Council and president at Pittsburgh-Bradford, talked about the concern of privacy and stigmatizing student-athletes.
“Athletic trainers already deal with medically sensitive issues every day,” he said. “We have established procedures to handle confidential information in a professional manner that is still in the best interests of the student-athlete. There is no reason to suggest we would not address sickle cell trait status in the same professional manner.”
And Sharon Herzberger, president at Whittier College and incoming vice chair of the Presidents Council, said she believes the cost concerns of the last year have been addressed. She noted that on Thursday, the Division III Presidents Council approved an approximate $220,000 distribution, reallocated from an anticipated 2012-13 surplus in the collaboration with NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) to address alcohol and other drug abuse, that will provide each Division III school up to $500 to offset the costs of testing.
Allocations will be made through a web-based reimbursement system in which schools would log in and submit their policy regarding sickle cell trait status confirmation along with the athletics director’s signature certifying that the policy and testing had been implemented accordingly. Schools also would be asked to indicate the number of first-year student-athletes and transfers in 2013-14. After that, schools would receive their $500 check.
NCAA national office staff also will continue to communicate with schools and conferences about best practices for implementation and provide answers to questions and concerns.
Gustavus Adolphus president Ohle, who now assumes the role as chair of the Presidents Council for 2013, noted the impact of the sickle cell proposal after the business session concluded.
“As was discussed on the floor, it is really about providing information and education to students and maintaining our need to be concerned about their well-being,” he said. “I credit in many ways the educational outreach done over the last year that was put together not to ‘blitz’ the membership or attempt to persuade an outcome, but to provide information that is educational.”