Count this as a blog post I never anticipated on writing.
Turns out, college basketball is growing in danger insofar as said danger relates to sudden death. It has now been deduced that men playing Division I college basketball, on average, are more likely to succumb to heart failure than canines cruising across the terrain of Alaska.
College basketball is more deadly than the Iditarod.
And it doesn't appear to be close. The reason for this? All dogs go through pretty extensive health checks before and during the oft-misunderstood, annual dog-driven race each March in the Final Frontier. Meanwhile, to the south, young men are participating in a much more loved, embraced and celebrated March tradition -- and are facing a higher health risk while doing so.
The numbers for this conclusion came from Dr. Kimberly Harmon and her colleagues at the University of Washington. A link to some of her findings -- the research data pool was gleaned from 2004 to 2008 -- can be found here. And it goes beyond comparisons between humans and dogs. The team's research shows that men's Division I basketball players face the highest risk of sudden cardiac death (SDC). Among the statistics, here are the big ones:
There is a 1-in-43,700 chance a student-athlete will die from SCD each year. The male athletes face a 1-in-33,134 risk, and black athletes' chances increase to 1-in-17,796 odds. Female student-athletes have a 1-in-76,646 chance of dying each year.
Because of D-I basketball's speed, start-and-stop style, the critical number: 1-in-3,126. There are currently 344 Division I teams. With walk-ons, put each team at an average of 13 players. That's 4,472 young men. Men's hoops is the most dangerous, followed by swimming, lacrosse, football and cross-country runners.
Basketball players don't consistently know the strength or condition of their hearts. They're constantly playing, practicing, lifting weights, etc. With this ignorance, danger looms. That's because schools -- often because of cost -- don't mandate electrocardiographic screening prior to or during seasons. If they did, in most cases, cardiac-related deaths would be avoided, experts believe.
The death rate for an Iditarod sled dog, [Iditarod chief veterinarian Stu Nelson] said, now lies "somewhere between the death rate for humans engaged in jogging and those participating in cross country skiing," which would appear to make it about 10 times safer for a sled-dog to run the 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome than for a young, black man to play Division I college basketball.Look at Hank Gathers, a death that still stirs within the sport. Recently, we had Jeron Lewis, who died last year. Last month, at the high school level, Wes Leonard and Robert Garza both died after suddenly after unexpectedly collapsing on the court.
Harmon's conclusion is eye-opening, scary and worth paying close attention to. Her report ends with, "SCD is the leading medical cause of death and death during exercise in NCAA student-athletes. Current methods of data collection underestimate the risk of SCD. Accurate assessment of SCD incidence is necessary to shape appropriate health policy decisions and develop effective strategies for prevention."
Few things in college sports -- or sports, life in general -- are more harrowing than seeing an athlete collapse on the court, field, ice, etc. The deaths are happening more frequently than we think, and it's time universities across the country start putting mandatory electrocardiographic screening tests in place for every student-athlete.