RALEIGH, N.C. — As a bona fide hockey dad, Steve Becker has some responsibilities: For one, he's had to restrain his own aggressive play on the ice to make sure his three hockey-playing sons get the right message about sportsmanship.
But currently, he's getting little help from his kids' other role models. Like millions of other dads, Mr. Becker, a seafood wholesaler from Apex, N.C., spent last week harrumphing as he watched ESPN with his boys, who range in age from 12 to 16. As allegations around the BALCO steroid scandal touched the heights of baseball and track, Becker had to try to explain not only how badly athletes cheat when they take steroids, but also why so many people are defending them.
"They see everything, so I've had to think a lot harder about what I do," says Becker. "But it's a lot harder when nobody else seems to care that much when these sports heroes cheat."
Many Americans do care, but for others a quiet acceptance of "steroid heroes" is on the rise, and the shift is clear even to the youngest wide-eyed fans - captives of an age that's always full of hurdles and shifting ideas of right and wrong.
Nearly half a million middle- and high-schoolers admit to at least trying anabolic steroids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Experts say that middle-school boys - 1 in 3 of whom reads the sports section at least once a week and 87 percent of whom watch the NFL - are taking cues from the BALCO backlash. Along with memorizing earned-run averages and plus-minuses, they're learning the intricacies of blood counts and "masking agents," struggling to parse society's growing acceptance of cheating for success.
That's not to say there hasn't been outrage. The potential impact of high-profile steroid abuse has garnered attention on all levels: President Bush called for baseball to take stronger action against steroids in his State of the Union address last January, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona has proposed antisteroids legislation. In a recent Gallup Poll, 86 percent of baseball fans called for more stringent steroid tests in time for the 2005 season. And 59 percent of those surveyed said that they'd support congressional legislation if players and owners can't agree on new rules.
"The kids are all watching ESPN, they tune in every night, and they come to school and talk about it," says Michael Holton, principal of East Garner Middle School outside Raleigh. "All kids know is that Barry Bonds looks good, he's huge, he's muscular, he hits the ball a mile, and they wonder: Can I do that same thing by just injecting myself?"
It's a question being posed in poster-bedecked bedrooms and hallway huddles across America. Parents, grandparents, and teachers are still the ones whom most kids ultimately look to for deeper clues about ethics and citizenship. Yet in a country that's debating whether to even put an asterisk next to Bonds' name in the record books, many experts say it's imperative that the steroid-free ideal of sportsmanship remain sacrosanct.
"Sport is the one area where there's still resistance to the idea that anything that makes our life easier, faster, quicker, more efficient is better," says Dr. J. Nadine Gelberg of Rochester, N.Y., who studies the impact of technology on sports. "We still have wooden bats. So, in that way, sport is kind of a bastion of protecting these core values, but the steroid issue is proof that the bastion is struggling."
At East Garner, the doping scandal and last month's NBA brawl have been hot topics for weeks. Mr. Holton says he's encouraged by the fact that boys stop him in the hall to ask him his thoughts - though he admits that a principal's influence can pale in comparison to a Bonds home run. In kids' comments about the NBA brawl, he says he sees a generational value shift. "They wonder not how the players could have jumped in, but why someone would throw a beer. It's real scary what they accept."
Still, many students are appalled. Rushing to speak over each other, Apex Middle School students Joe Anderson, Andrew Veal, and Travis Sears - huddled in gray anoraks, skateboards stuffed in their backpacks - acknowledge Barry Bonds is a big hero. "Drugs are just plain bad, but a lot of kids do look up to these guys," says Andrew, a towheaded skater with a confident smile.
They've learned all about the dangers of drugs at school - not just of recreational drugs, but of steroids specifically. Still, says Travis, it's not lost on their classmates that lots of grownups seem to be defending the athletes: "It's just weird that people don't seem to fault these guys."
Despite crackdowns and improvements in testing for Major League Baseball, Becker, the hockey dad, says it's a growing challenge to convince kids that great athletes aren't produced by chemicals, but are shaped by nature, desire, and will power. Holton agrees: "Many of them don't understand that Barry Bonds has natural talents; now they just think anyone who's big is on steroids."
But there are other pressures, including competition for scholarships, that have made even some parents wink and nod at extreme measures to help boost their children's chances of securing college scholarships, or simply scoring more points in the big game.
"Kids are wondering what it's going to take to make varsity, how to get an edge, so it's not surprising that this is filtering down the way it has," says Dr. Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute for Sports Reform in Selkirk, NY.
Moreover, pediatricians see a drive for steroids even beyond the track field and the gym: Since steroids make it easier to fine-tune a six-pack tummy and bulk up the shoulders, some kids are turning to them as a tool for physical perfection - a common obsession among teenagers starting to make important decisions about their bodies.
"It's less and less in athletes and more and more in kids who want to look good. It's the Adonis complex," says Bernard Griesemer, a pediatrician in Springfield, Mo.
Despite the physical dangers - chronic users have been known to battle hair loss, acne, and heart problems, and even suffer psychotic episodes - making steroid use more acceptable for sports stars, experts say, is likely to spark more substance abuse in the early years. And mixed messages about the acceptability of cheating for glory are likely to have a broad impact on how the middle-school masses make decisions about how to get ahead.
Children see "how our society has looked the other way, how owners of baseball looked the other way, how fans looked the other way," says Dr. Svare. "We need an attitude change in our culture, because kids can really piece this together much better than we think they can."
• Staff writer Mark Sappenfield contributed to this report.