Who decides when or if an athlete should play?


HE CAME HOME that night, had something to eat and disappeared into the darkness of his bedroom. Surrounded by trophies, photographs of sports stars and other artifacts of adolescence, Stephen Larkin slid a videotape into a VCR and sat back on a pillow, his eyes drawn to the flickering image of himself taking a handoff for his former high school football team.

While Larkin watched himself -- across the screen for a 12-yard gain and collapse beneath a pile of tacklers, he looked up and saw his mother, Shirley, standing at the door. He asked her to come in.

"See that?" he told her. "That was the last time I ever carried the ball for Moeller."

Shirley Larkin sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. "Maybe," she began optimistically, "you could give a sport like golf a try. The doctors said that would be OK. Golf is something I know you could do very well."

Stephen shrugged and replied: "Golf is for sissies. I never want to hear the word golf again!"

Two other words Stephen Larkin would prefer not hearing are these: Hank Gathers. When the Loyola Marymount University basketball star died of a heart seizure during a game March 4, 1990, it left athletic administrators shuddering with fear that it could happen again and Stephen Larkin the subject of intense scrutiny.

The brother of Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin and the youngest member of a gifted family of athletes, Larkin had been a promising first baseman and running back at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati when he was diagnosed a year ago as having a potentially fatal heart defect and prohibited from participating in "strenuous" sports.

Larkin, 17, still hopes to play and has sued both Moeller and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati for that right.

The immense shadow of Gathers also looms over others. He seems to have grown larger in death, and he becomes larger still each time an abrupt blip appears on a heart monitor or an unexpected speck surfaces on an X-ray.

In the cases of Stephen Larkin and other athletes who have encountered potentially perilous physical problems since Gathers' death, passions in the athletic community have flared and sides have been divided on one ethical question: "Who should decide when or if an athlete should play?"

That question has but one answer to Shirley Larkin.

The family should decide.

"A priest from the archdiocese told me we have a moral obligation to protect Steve," Shirley said. "I told him, 'Who has a greater moral obligation to this child? I love him more than you ever will.'"

In the year that has passed since Gathers died at age 23, lawsuits and counter-suits have been filed, accusations have been hurled between litigants and reputations have been skewered. Medical issues have been debated, legal questions have been scrutinized and widespread apprehension has prevailed.

Yet, while Gathers' death and the entanglements it created have caused athletic administrators to pause and err on the side of safety, the incident has done little to sober athletes with physical defects to the potential risks and keep them from attempting to pursue their careers. Some deep conflicts have developed.

"What we have seen is an ultra-conservatism take hold," said Dr. Joseph Torg, the director of the Sports Medicine Center at Penn and a pre-eminent expert on the cervical spine. "This was such a dramatic, chilling event that whenever a kid faints -- regardless of the cause -- he is precluded from participating in sports. Gathers has caused the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction in this respect.

"But am I surprised that the athlete is oblivious to the potential hazards?" Torg said. "No. Athletes have always believed that it could never happen to them."

When Gathers fainted during a December 1989 game -- and Loyola continued to permit him to play -- it shed a poor light on collegiate sports and the people who administer them.

Marvin Cobb, the assistant athletic director at USC, summed up the situation when he said that "Gathers has left all of us sensitized" to the potential health problems of athletes, and that administrators have an "absolute obligation" to stop an athlete from endangering himself.

"There is no question that Gathers got our attention," Cobb said. "How could it not? None of us wants to be perceived as irresponsible or abusive or have a lawsuit dropped in our laps. I empathize with the athletes, but Gathers taught us something: We have to be careful."

Among athletes in questionable health, this is the prevailing view : Potential danger is everywhere.

Sudden death in athletes has been a truly confounding problem; five athletes have died since the beginning of 1990 from cardiac arrest and other causes.

The phenomenon had been a problem even before Gathers. According to Dr. Steven Van Camp, a San Diego cardiologist and vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine, between 15 and 20 high school and college athletes die each year from cardiac arrest.

When cardiologist Dr. Francis McCaffrey, of the Medical College of Georgia, investigated this phenomenon and co-authored a report on it in the February issue of The American Journal of Disease of Children, he discovered that sudden death is "often the first sign and symptom of cardiac abnormalities." He also observed that athletes' physical examinations have been "perfunctory and potentially dangerous because they may provide a false sense of security."

Identifying potential problems is but one challenge; saving someone from himself is something entirely different.

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