A Healthy Debate

When children run, jump, twist, and turn while playing sports, most don’t consider something could possibly go wrong. Horribly wrong.

It’s alarming to note that approximately 100 sudden deaths occur every year among athletes, ranging from middle school to college; more than half of the athletes die from a hidden cardiovascular problem. That’s too many tragedies, too many funerals and too many innocent lives cut short.

It’s time for everyone in the recreation profession to take a serious look at what they can do to help prevent these catastrophic events.

Consider these most recent events:

• Wes Leonard, a 16-year-old basketball player from Michigan, died of cardiac arrest moments after sinking the game-winning shot. An autopsy revealed an enlarged heart.

• Matthew Hammerdorfer, another teenager, died of cardiac arrest from a congenital heart defect while playing rugby in Colorado.

• North Carolina teen Javaris Brinkley died of heart failure after playing basketball.

• Florida teen Sarah Landauer, a soccer and track star, collapsed at track practice and later died.

Opposing Sides

Can more extensive health screenings be required before children take the field in an organized sport? And should defibrillators be present as well?

Many physicians are stepping forward in support of more comprehensive screenings and more in-depth physicals for athletes.

Even at the elite levels of sports, a growing number of countries -- as well as the International Olympic Committee -- requires athletes to have a screening that includes an electrocardiogram (ECG) before participating. An ECG measures the heart’s electrical activity; any abnormalities may indicate an underlying problem.

Should the pre-sports checkup for young athletes include an ECG? On one side of the debate, experts assert that adding an ECG to a checkup will identify a few more athletes with potentially dangerous cardiac conditions; those opposed say ECGs won’t detect all athletes at risk, and that adding them to pre-sports checkups comes with a hefty price tag.

No Easy Answers

So what do we do to help guard against these tragedies? After all, it is estimated one in 350 children may have a dangerous underlying heart condition, according to the American Heart Association.

As a parent of seven kids, all of whom played sports, I can tell you my wife and I never gave it a thought when our kids were in Little League. It never even occurred to us that they could have some type of health problem. Like most other parents, we took for granted that our kids were simply normal and healthy. We were lucky.

Does your program require participants to have a physical exam before they are handed a colorful uniform and granted permission to play? Is that really enough?

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at emartinez@nays.org or (800) 729-2057.