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Bronny James’ sudden cardiac arrest illuminates dangers for Black basketball players

Black Division I players most likely among athletes ages 11 to 29 to experience cardiac arrest and death

In early July, during the annual Nike Peach Jam tournament, I crammed into a South Carolina gym with hundreds of people to see the first family of basketball.

There were the matriarchs, Gloria James, whose son LeBron is a basketball star with the Los Angeles Lakers, and his wife Savannah, along with their young princess, Zhuri. There was “Coach LeBron” James with his son, Bryce, playing a fatherly role to the other 16-and-under players on the Strive For Greatness team roster. James’ son, Bronny, who committed to attending USC in May, wasn’t there, but I didn’t think much about it, except for when I might have passed a coach wearing the university logo.

When I heard that Bronny James, all of 18 years old, had a sudden cardiac arrest during basketball practice, I did what a lot of parents probably did – I thought about my kids. Then, I thought about Javaris Benson, nicknamed Vari.

Vari was a larger-than-life personality, the quintessential gentle giant. He was a mama’s boy and a proud defender of his younger brother, Jacory. Back in 2017, Vari went to play basketball with his friends on the campus of Chowan University. He had a sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed, dying before paramedics arrived.

This Black pain, expressed through the words of Vari’s mother, Lekesha Benson, went viral in 2020. She described how Vari had collapsed two years before, yet his symptoms were essentially disregarded and misdiagnosed at a nearby hospital.

“This is how systemic racism works,” she wrote. “You’re not listened to, dismissed, and overlooked. This is why more black women die giving birth. I suspect it’s one of the reasons black people are dying at higher rates from COVID.”

The post made national news, and Benson told Today that she “felt robbed of my own future and his.”

“It is not just missing him, but also missing the things I never got to see Vari do.”

From left to right: LeBron James, Bryce James, Zhuri James, Savannah James and Bronny James attend The ESPYS held at Dolby Theatre on July 12 in Los Angeles.

Christopher Polk/Variety via Getty Images

Out of their family tragedy, Lekesha and Jacory started The NOLA Network, which for its Mardi Gras-themed colors, has an altruistic message in its acronym – No Other Life Affected. The network focuses on health care equity and prevention of sudden cardiac arrest.

I’ve spoken to Benson, now a councilwoman in the city of Seneca, South Carolina, about a number of topics – our ties to the upstate of South Carolina, state politics, and regarding the persistence of sudden cardiac arrest emergencies, the miracle we know as Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who survived after collapsing from sudden cardiac arrest in January. It’s remarkable how her sense of optimism and activism outweigh her sorrow, and so it went with the news that Bronny James was recovering at home after being discharged.

“An occurrence of sudden cardiac arrest warrants sorrow, because the vast majority of them are preventable,” Benson said. “I find joy in the fact that Bronny and so many others have recently received an immediate and lifesaving response, something that my son and so many others did not receive.

“Education and activism on this issue, which has been the No. 1 cause of death on school campuses for my lifetime, is always called for.”

The high-profile incidents involving James and Hamlin have shined a light on Black male athletes and sudden cardiac arrest. NBC News cited a 2020 study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine that found that Black male NCAA Division I basketball players had the highest incidence rate of sudden cardiac arrest and death among athletes ages 11 to 29.

The key findings from that study are even more specific and shocking. Nearly half of the cases (47%) in college and pro athletes were caused by cardiomyopathy, or chronic disease associated with the heart muscle. In middle school athletes, coronary artery anomalies were prominent causes at 28%.

Overall, Black male college basketball players had an incidence rate of sudden cardiac arrest and death 21 times that was higher than the average among high school male athletes of all races. Football, with its perpetual collisions, is profoundly dangerous, and yet, when it comes to the heart, basketball presents the most danger.

CNN spoke with Jonathan Drezner, a sports cardiologist with the University of Washington Medical Center, who said that according to his research, Black male Division I hoopers have a 1 in 2,000 chance of experiencing sudden cardiac arrest each year. The risk for a white Division I player is 1 in 5,000.

The NOLA Network shares these statistics through its Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Program: 20 children die a day from sudden cardiac arrest, and 1 in 300 children have an undiagnosed heart condition that might lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

“I felt anger that after raising two D-I level athletes, who were two- and three-sport athletes, growing up playing sports myself and having been a coach, I had very limited knowledge of sudden cardiac death and had always heard it was this rare, unlikely thing,” Benson said. “I found out in 2017 that is not the case. I felt shock, as I’m also sure these families did. But in the end, I felt motivated to work to prevent this from happening to someone else’s son or daughter.”

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin plays during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 7, 2021, at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What saved Hamlin and James was immediate access to life-saving care. Sadly, that is not the case in a number of U.S. gyms and other sports facilities. The American Heart Association spoke to that deficiency in March with its push for the Access to AEDs Act, which would “extend access to automated external defibrillators, increase CPR training and enable the creation of cardiac emergency response plans in schools across the country.” Hamlin went to Capitol Hill to speak on behalf of the legislation.

On Thursday, LeBron James wrote a love letter of sorts on X, formerly known as Twitter, sharing his gratitude for the outpouring of support in the aftermath of his son’s sudden cardiac arrest.

“I want to thank the countless people sending my family love and prayers. We feel you and I’m so grateful,” he tweeted. “Everyone doing great. We have our family together, safe and healthy, and we feel your love. Will have more to say when we’re ready but I wanted to tell everyone how much your support has meant to all of us!”

The next love letter should be in the form of legislation that will ensure that every athlete in this country has to automated external defibrillators and CPR.

“Have an AED on every campus, facility, school and organization where children … nah, where people gather,” Benson wrote via Facebook. “Because my God, why would you not?”

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.