Sickle Cell in Football: How Genetics Can Impact Performance on the Field

by NxGen MDx

Football season is here! Around the country people are planning tailgates, digging their lucky jerseys out of the closet, and drafting their fantasy football teams. Your favorite team relies on keeping their players uninjured and healthy in order to have the best shot at the playoffs and that coveted Super Bowl ring.

However, aside from the usual torn ACLs or concussions, some players face more complex issues that could threaten their health, as well as their team’s playoff prospects. For a few high-profile players, a relatively common genetic condition known as sickle cell trait can have a big impact on their performance on the field.

Sickle cell trait occurs when one of a pair of genes that governs hemoglobin and red blood cell production has a variant on it. Although not nearly as severe as sickle cell anemia (where both pairs of genes have a variant), sickle cell trait makes some people more susceptible to heat stroke and muscle breakdown when performing intense physical activity. The risk increases when playing at high elevations – due to lower oxygen content in the air – such as Denver’s Mile High Stadium.

Well known players such as Tevin Coleman (RB, Atlanta Falcons), Ty Montgomery (RB, Green Bay Packers), former safety Ryan Clark, and former WR Terrell Owens have all been public about their sickle cell trait and have helped raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding this important health issue. Although sickle cell gene variants are found among all ethnicities (and regardless of any family history) they are more prevalent among individuals with African-American and Hispanic ancestry.

Despite these increased risks, most people with sickle cell trait perform athletically with no adverse effects. Actual health crises from sickle cell trait are rare and can be mostly prevented by avoiding dehydration and overheating during training and gameplay, taking regular breaks, and having staff on hand to monitor an individual’s condition.

If you are interested in learning more about sickle cell trait and related diseases, visit these pages:
NxGen MDx – Sickle Cell Anemia
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – What You Should Know About Sickle Cell Trait
Sickle Cell Disease Association of America – About SCT & SCD