Steroid use by professional athletes has become arguably the most sensational and controversial issue in recent sports history.
But beneath the clamor, use of performance-enhancing substances by teenage athletes may be an even more critical issue — and one that states are finally beginning to address.
Potential effects of steroid abuse
Here are the potential physiological effects of steroids on someone who abuses them:
• Liver tumors and cancer
• High blood pressure
• Kidney tumors
• Severe acne, and trembling
• Shrinking of the testicles
• Breast development (males)
• Growth of facial hair (females)
• Menstrual changes
• Deepened voice (females)
• In teens, a premature halt to growth
— Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse
While state athletic associations haggle over the cost and controversy of steroid tests for high school athletes, there's growing concern that teenagers, some as young as 13, are injecting and ingesting unregulated anabolic steroids in an attempt to score touchdowns, hit home runs, win gold medals or simply to improve their looks.
In three states, Texas being the latest, state legislatures have taken the steroid testing issue out of the hands of educators and athletic administrators and have initiated programs that will level the athletic playing field for participants, provide data regarding steroid use and, most importantly, reduce teenagers' temptation to use man-made hormones that promise results now and can yield harmful or even deadly consequences later.
The Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL) is waiting for permission from the state legislature to begin what will be the largest steroid testing program in the world. A two-year legislative appropriation worth $6 million will cover the cost of 46,000 tests at approximately 400 Texas high schools. The 23,000 tests Texas will perform during a given school year are more extensive than the testing efforts of the NCAA, which administers between 15,000 and 16,000 tests annually.
Florida is in the first year of a limited testing program that will monitor athletes in six sports, and New Jersey — which launched the first steroid testing program in the nation in 2006-2007 — is in the second year of its program.
Even if the number of positive tests is zero, it's something that can't be stopped. To me it's something every state should have in place.
— Kate Armstrong, a sophomore distance runner at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J.
In its inaugural phase, the New Jersey testing program produced one positive result in 500 urine samples. Illinois hopes to begin steroid testing — probably without financing by taxpayers — during the 2008-2009 school year. Governments in New Mexico, West Virginia and Connecticut have considered or inquired about steroid testing programs.
"Steroid testing makes an athlete think about the balance between the benefits and the risk," said Frank Uryasz, the executive director of the Center for Drug Free Sports, which manages the high school testing programs for New Jersey, Florida and the NCAA. "It makes an athlete choose to use."
In Texas, Florida and New Jersey, the goal of legislators was to provide a final, definitive reason for a student-athlete to say "no" to steroids — taking over where education and parental involvement may fall short. Violators of the steroid testing programs in those states can be suspended from athletic participation for as long as a year.
"Even if the number of positive tests is zero, it's something that can't be stopped," said Kate Armstrong a sophomore distance runner at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J. "For me, this (the testing) is something every state should have in place."
In what is an educational rarity, teachers, coaches and administrators agree about the need for a multi-faceted approach to deterrence, starting with education about the potential hazards of steroid use.
The three testing states also require a contract, signed by player and parent, granting permission for random urine tests as a prerequisite to sports participation. And finally, there are the random tests themselves, in which a plastic cup and a cold-tile path to a lavatory stall drive home the reminder to every athlete about what is at stake.
"Every umbrella you can open that provides additional safety, or in this case good health to a kid, needs to be opened," said Susan Sharkey, a Southern Regional physical education teacher, assistant volleyball coach and parent of a student-athlete.
"As educators, we would be dumb to think there are not high school athletes out there using steroids," said Rich Labounty the athletic director and baseball coach at Pensacola (Fla.) Catholic High School. "If we can help kids make good decisions, be it through education, counseling or testing, that is our job and the reason most of us got into this profession in the first place."
Studies and statistics confirm the need for a unified front in combating steroid use among teenagers.
Results from the 2006 Monitoring the Future Study, which surveyed students in eighth, 10th, and 12th grades nationally, show that 1.6 percent of eighth-graders, 1.8 percent of 10th-graders, and 2.7 percent of 12th-graders reported using steroids at least once.
According to law enforcement authorities, illegal steroids are often sold at gyms, athletic clubs and competitions — as well as through mail-order operations — after being smuggled into the U.S. Most illegal steroids originate in countries that don't require a prescription for the purchase of steroids.
"None of the girls I know use steroids," said Kate Armstrong, the cross-country runner from New Jersey. "Maybe we don't think it's a big deal when it really is."
Robert W. Baly, assistant director at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association who oversees the New Jersey testing program for the NJSIAA, quoted national statistics that indicated roughly five percent of high school athletes have used steroids.
Robert F. Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis, said he has seen estimates of as high as 11 percent of high school athletes using steroids. A recent University of Michigan report found 2.7 percent of high school seniors have used steroids at some point — 1.8 percent within the past year.
The latest National Federation statistics indicate secondary-sports participation is at an all-time high, with 7.3 million high school-aged students playing interscholastic sports. More than three million girls participate in interscholastic sports.
"Based on those percentages, it means there are between 30,000 and 80,000 kids involved with steroids," Baly said. "If it were a disease, that would be enough to get someone to find a way to prevent it."
In New Jersey, Texas and Florida, state representatives are attempting to do just that.
"Young people are traditionally risk-takers," said Texas State Sen. Kyle Janek, who sponsored the steroid testing bill in his state. "There is such an emphasis on success in sports, there are student-athletes who might be tempted to try steroids. The legislature made the funds available and made the testing a priority.
"If we can raise awareness and educate students on the dangers of steroids, $6 million in a budget of $154 billion is money well spent."
EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF TESTING
In New Jersey, Senate President Richard Codey, who successfully advocated testing legislation when he was governor, hopes to expand the Garden State program to 1,000 kids per year while increasing legislative funding to $100,000.
If we can help kids make good decisions — be it through education, counseling or testing — that is our job and the reason most of us got into this profession in the first place.
— Rich Labounty, athletic director at Pensacola (Fla.) Catholic High School
"A teenager today doesn't think about taking something now that might kill them later," Codey said. "They think they will live forever.
"This is a topic that is discussed all the time, from congressional hearings to Barry Bonds. To me, $50,000 to deter a kid from taking steroids out of a budget of $33 billion is well worth it."
Codey also believes New Jersey will make its testing system more random. At present, a student-athlete can only be tested if his or her team or the student-athlete as an individual qualifies for the state championships. In the system Codey advocates, athletes could be tested when they - or their teams - qualify for the state playoffs.
"I'd be in favor of that," said Joseph Montano, the athletic director and girls' basketball coach at Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic High School. "As it stands now, a kid knows four or five weeks into the season if they have a chance to be tested based on record."
Frank Uryasz, from the Center for Drug Free Sport, agreed that the more random the tests are, the better.
In New Jersey, a survey of tested athletes indicated that, while few even considered using steroids, most knew where and how to get them.
"From my perspective, the year-round testing, where you go into the schools, will have more of a deterrent effect than taking the tests at the state championships," Uryasz said.
"The availability, to us, was the scary part," Baly said. "All we can do is try and make a kid think twice. Our goal isn't solely to catch a kid who is using steroids. It's to deter them from doing something harmful to themselves and to level the playing field for everyone."
And even with only one positive test, the NJSIAA feels the testing program is accomplishing its goals.
Susan Sharkey agreed. "A low number of failures are a good thing," she said. "But it doesn't mean we don't need testing."
In Florida, student-athletes will be tested in football, baseball, boys' and girls' weightlifting, girls' flag football and girls' softball. Florida will administer 600 tests among athletes from a pool of 651 high schools. Schools are notified seven days before the testers arrive on campus. The one-year program will cost the taxpayers $100,000.
"This program took three years to pass," said Michael Hornberger, the director of media relations for the Florida High School Association. "I believe it is an issue, but the results of the one-year program will give direction to testing in years to come."
"I believe the program we have in Florida is a good start," Labounty said. "I think it is a step in the right direction. Personally, I'd like to see every high school athlete tested. I believe this is needed if we have the health of our student-athletes at heart."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse noted that while the effects of steroids can boost confidence and strength, users often overlook the potentially serious and long-term damage they can cause. The health consequences can be both physical and mental.
Find out more
The following Web sites will help you find more information about steroids and steroid testing:
According to the NIDA website, users who share needles or use non-sterile techniques when they inject steroids are at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C.
"Kids are looking for reasons to make good decisions," said Michael Armstrong, a Student Assistance Counselor at Southern Regional High School and father of distance runner Kate Armstrong. "The more opportunities you can give a kid to know someone will be checking up on them, the more it helps them do the right thing," he said. "There is no magic number that should stop us from testing."
Uryasz said steroid testing at the collegiate level has helped erase many of the myths about which athletes use steroids. The most recent NCAA survey, complied in 2005, indicates 2.3 percent of collegiate baseball players have used steroids – the same percentage as collegiate football players and a lower rate than wrestlers. And to show that steroid use is not gender-specific, 2.4 percent of female ice hockey players have used steroids.
In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 7 percent of ninth-grade girls admitted to using anabolic steroids.
"It's not the number of positive tests that will determine the success of the testing programs," Uryasz said. "It's whether or not the presence of the programs has influenced behavior."
THE SEARCH FOR A BENCHMARK OF ABUSE
Since there has never been a national high school survey regarding steroid use, the Texas program, for example, will provide some much-needed information about steroid use by high school athletes. Don Hooton is one Texas parent who believes the figures will open eyes across the state.
Hooton founded the Taylor Hooton Foundation after his 17-year-old son committed suicide in 2003. According to the website taylorhooton.org, family members and doctors believe the suicide was related to depression brought on by discontinuing the use of anabolic steroids. Don Hooton was a staunch supporter of the Texas testing bill.
"They can talk about the costs of the tests all they want (but) Plano (Texas) just built a $20 million football facility," Hooton said. "It's all a matter of priorities. They have the money; it's just an unwillingness to spend it elsewhere."
Of three high school testing programs, New Jersey tests for 34 stimulants - including cocaine and more than 15 micrograms of caffeine, 28 anabolic agents and steroids, 18 diuretics, five peptide hormones and analogues and three releasing factors. Florida has a list of 46 banned anabolic and androgenic substances. Texas has banned 25 anabolic agents.
Even with all the banned substances, at least one Texas high school coach, Dick Olin, the coach at Robert E. Lee High School outside of Houston, said the test doesn't go far enough.
"If you test for everything, you are telling kid you care about him as a person," Olin said. "If you test them for steroids, you are telling them you care about them as an athlete. I believe you should be testing every kid, not just targeting one group."
And one day there may be the means to do that, to ensure that every child is drug-free. For now, however fair or unfair, it will begin with the student-athletes.
"The more reasons you can give a student-athlete to say 'No,' the better," said Kanaby of the of National Federation of State High School Associations. "Maybe a student-athlete doesn't want to disappoint their parents, or their coach; for someone else, it might be the fear of being caught by a steroid test; for another it might be the loss of collegiate aspirations. The broader the program, the more reasons, the more kids you can reach."
As a headline on a National Federation brochure reminds everyone: "It's not really winning if you cheat."
Joe Zedalis has covered high school sports in New Jersey for 30 years and is the Rumors Editor at Yahoo! Sports.