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Football screens and genes: Should genetic discrimination in sport be banned?

In the Guardian this weekend, it is reported that at least one UK football club has been contemplating using genetic tests to screen potential recruits,in the hope of identifying future star players. This comes only one day after legislation was passed in the US Senate prohibiting insurance companies and employers from using genetic information in hiring or insurance decisions.

It is early days for genetic screening in sport. One such test, for the
gene ACTN3 (a gene found in elite sprinters) is already commercially
available in Australia. However only a handful of genes have been
linked to athletic ability, and the relationship between specific
genetic sequences and performance is still being established. It is not
clear that using currently available genetic tests to screen potential
football players is an effective or reliable means of selection.

However, given the amount of money that clubs spend on recruitment (50
million pounds per year for English professional clubs), there is
likely to be ongoing pressure to develop predictive genetic tests for
football performance, and to use them in selection.

If such tests turn out to be useful, then it is possible that United
States teams will in the future be at some disadvantage. The
genetic-non-discrimination act would presumably prevent professional
clubs in the US from using tests like the ACTN3 genotype in recruitment
decisions.  But perhaps we should not allow UK clubs to use these tests
either? It is surely unfair to exclude potential sportspeople on the
basis of their genes, since it is not something over which they have
any control. No amount of hard work, perseverance or will power will
change someone’s genotype. It might also provide an unfair advantage to
clubs or countries that have the scientific and financial resources to
perform genetic screening for athletic performance. There is a risk
that entry to elite-level sporting competition in the future will be
confined to a subset of the population who happen to have the right
combination of genes.

On the other hand, sporting clubs, and sporting competitions already
discriminate on the basis of genetics. Individuals who do not happen to
have the right combination of genes are already excluded from
elite-level sport. Although selection is not yet done on the basis of
cheek swabs, it is clear that selection processes assess athletes’
genetically determined physical potential. Is it any less unfair to use
height as a factor in selecting basketballers, than to use the ACTN3
genotype in selecting footballers?

There are several possible solutions to genetic discrimination in
sport. Legislation, like that passed this week in the US could be used
to prevent clubs from using genetic screening in recruitment. However
that would still allow clubs to discriminate indirectly on the basis of
genetic attributes, in the way that they do currently. Alternatively,
in some sports at least, it is possible to imagine a form of genetic
handicapping. Runners who are identified as having a genetic advantage
could start behind those less naturally endowed. Finally, it is
possible that advances in science may allow athletes access to genetic
enhancements that would enable them to compete with those who have
obtained unfair advantages by virtue of their birth.

Then perhaps there would truly be a level playing field.

One club wants to use a gene-test to spot the new Ronaldo. Is this football’s future?
The Guardian 26/4/08

ACTN3 genotype in professional soccer players
British Journal Sports Medicine 2008

Here’s GINA 24/4/8

US blocks genetic discrimination
BBC news 25/4/8

Selecting children’s sports with $100 gene test swab

Center for Genetics and Society 15/11/2006

gene tests to spot sports talent absolutelyalex 26/4/8

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