Sudden Death is for Hockey, not NCAA Basketball Players

All eyes are set on Atlanta this weekend as it hosts the NCAA Final Four.  For weeks, millions of Americans have been glued to their TVs to see if their team survives into the next round.

But for some players and coaches in the NCAA, survival means much more than advancing in the tournament.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the #1 cause of death of student athletes. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it takes the lives of 2,000 students every year.  By many accounts, this number is low because we don’t track the causes of death of children in this country.

The sudden death of Hank Gathers 23 years ago is always mentioned when discussing the topic of sudden cardiac arrest, but we don’t need to look beyond this season, or even this year’s tournament to recognize the tragic impact that sudden cardiac arrest is having on our sport and our young athletes.

Coach Fred Hoiberg led the Iowa State Cyclones into the Round of 32.  He retired from the NBA seven years ago after discovering a heart condition.

Creighton University advanced into the Round of 32 without their guard, Josh Jones.  He retired from basketball earlier this year after undergoing a procedure to correct a heart condition.

Carl Hall, a starting forward for Wichita State, retired from basketball in 2009 due to a heart condition.  With medication, he has returned and is leading the Shockers to their first Final Four since 1965.  Guy Alang-Ntang, also a Shocker, was not as lucky.  He was recruited to play for the Shockers in 2007.  During an exhibition game, he collapsed and died.  Coach Gregg Marshall was in the stands the night he collapsed.

A recent study published by the American Heart Association shows that 1 out of every 3,100 NCAA Division I male basketball players is at risk of dying from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) every year.  This year, it was Nathaniel Joshua “Erv” Ervin.  He collapsed and died during a basketball game at Mars Hill College.  It could have also been Danny Berger, a forward at Utah State University, who collapsed as well.  Fortunately for Berger, an AED device was able to shock his heart and save his life.

Is it acceptable that every year at least one NCAA basketball player will die from a detectable and preventable condition?  Josh Jones and Carl Jones had symptoms.  As such, they got their hearts checked.  Nathaniel Ervin and Danny Berger didn’t report any symptoms – their hearts did not get checked.

Checking the hearts of our student athletes makes sense.  In Italy, all of their student athletes get their hearts checked.  This practice reduced the incidence of sudden cardiac death there by 89 percent.  The NBA was the first professional league to institute mandatory heart screenings for its players.  Fred Hoiberg is just one of the many beneficiaries of this policy.  Last year, it was Jeff Green (Celtics) and LeMarcus Aldrige (Trailblazers).

A study published in the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine establishes that an ECG exam, coupled with a physical and complete medical history is the best way to detect and prevent conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

We need to start checking the hearts of our students because sports are supposed to be fun, not deadly.  It’s OK for us to wager on our Final Four pools.  It’s not OK for us to gamble with our children’s lives.