A welcome push to investigate athletics training


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Last week’s nearly simultaneous hospitalization of 13 University of Iowa football players drew national attention.

And for good reason: It is improbable that so many athletes came down with rhabdomyolysis (in which damaged muscular tissue leaks into the blood) by sheer chance, particularly when that condition is known to be a possible side effect of exertional trauma. The state Board of Regents’ Jan. 27 announcement that it will look into the incident is, therefore, laudable; equally important is the application of any conclusions derived from the investigation to student-athlete training both at the UI and in the NCAA as a whole.

While it is too early to determine the particular etiology of the rhabdomyolysis cases, it is encouraging that the investigation emphasizes prevention of future injury.

“Our focus is bringing our student-athletes back to health and finding out what happened to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” UI spokesman Tom Moore told the DI Editorial Board by e-mail. “We will report fully what we discover broadly when we have facts.”

Whatever the findings of the regents’ inquiry, future measures must resonate throughout the college-athletics milieu. Mass rhabdomyolysis cases are relatively rare, but they’re not unprecedented; Moore pointed out that seven members of the University of South Carolina swimming team were similarly treated for rhabdomyolysis in 2008.

There is a precedent for nationwide initiatives to reform college-athletics training — a precedent that also involves rhabdomyolysis.

Following the deaths of two football players during extreme off-season training in 2006 and 2010, the NCAA instituted mandatory testing for sickle-cell anemia and the sickle-cell trait last August. The genotype, which in this country is disproportionately present in those of African descent, codes for a phenotypical alteration in blood cell shape that causes people to be particularly vulnerable to exertional rhabdomyolysis.

The National Athletics Trainers Association published a consensus statement in 2007 that aimed to raise awareness of the condition and recommended some simple precautions to reduce the risk of sickle-trait-related fatalities. They include paying careful attention to certain symptoms, including muscle cramping and fatigue and discouraging coaches and trainers from pressuring athletes to continue working through the pain.

Because it is unlikely that sickle-cell disease is the underlying catalyst in the 13 Hawkeye cases, it is important at this point to extend the trainer-association recommendation to all athletes. It is important to note, however, that a few cases of injury or illness can induce serious systematic change in the conduction of college athletics; if the regents’ investigation uncovers particular conditions that led to the Iowa hospitalizations, those conditions can and should be eradicated within reason.

“The UI is conducting a root-cause analysis,” Moore said. “We will draw upon resources from across the campus as needed to complete the analysis in a thorough and timely manner.”

This analysis may, counterintuitively, discover that the outbreak of injury was a freak occurrence. It may also determine specific factors that led to the prevalence of the condition and thus lead to reforms in particular combinations of exercises, off-season training time regulations, or workout standards.

Whatever measures are taken to prevent these misfortunes from recurring can have an effect far beyond our own university. Possible national implications highlight the importance of a comprehensive investigation and subsequent reasonable initiatives; we hope the regents will not disappoint us.

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