States taking on teen steroid use
California has become the first to establish steroid rules for high-schoolers as seven other states consider similar bills.
OAKLAND, CALIF. — A surge of activity in high schools and state legislatures from Connecticut to California suggests that the outrage over steroid abuse has now made it to Main Street America.
For years, illegal steroid use had been seen almost exclusively as the scourge of high-stakes sports - the far-off realm of millionaire ballplayers and athletes of freakish physical proportions. But the March congressional hearing, which included not only an evasive Mark McGwire but also the parents of a high-schooler whose suicide was linked to steroids, has provided momentum to schools and lawmakers seeking to root out teen use of performance-enhancing drugs.
On Friday, California became the first state to establish steroid rules specifically for high-schoolers, including a requirement that all its athletes and their parents sign an antisteroid contract. Seven states are also considering bills that range from tougher penalties for steroid dealers to broad testing of teen athletes.
Most plans are limited in scope for now, focusing on education more than enforcement. The cost of steroid testing is prohibitive, many states and school districts say, and the legal questions are troublesome. But the flurry of bills represents an awakening, as Americans come to realize that the synthetic absurdity of the East German Olympic teams of the 1970s and 1980s has spread much closer to home.
"Right now, because of the hearings in Washington, it is a topic of high interest nationwide," says Jerry Diehl of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis. "Local communities are wanting to keep these performance-enhancing substances out of the hands of adolescents."
Between 1991 and 2003, the number of high schoolers who said they took steroids at least once more than doubled to 6 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Steroid use cuts across gender lines as well. A recent government-sponsored study of risky behaviors found that 5 percent of high school girls and 7 percent of middle-school girls admit to trying anabolic steroids at least once.
The numbers, while not overwhelming, point to a trend that is generating concern nationwide.
A week before the congressional steroid hearings, with its testimony of high-school steroid abuse, five students in Connecticut were arrested for possessing and passing out steroids they bought on vacation in Mexico. The school was the state's football champion.
Since then, three states have taken steps to initiate comprehensive steroid testing among high schoolers. Last month, the Florida House unanimously passed a bill to establish a pilot program, which would test athletes in one sport statewide. Meanwhile, a Connecticut lawmaker and the New Mexico governor have proposed setting aside state money to create random testing for all high-school athletes.
These efforts have quickly become the focus of the national debate. While virtually everyone agrees about the dangers of steroids and the desire to eliminate them from high-school locker rooms, the question of testing causes deep divisions.
On one hand, testing is considered the most effective deterrent. On the other, the process - though consistently supported by the courts - raises privacy concerns. Moreover, it casts schools in the role of an anti-doping agency and potentially the target of angry parents.
"It's inevitable that you will get a parent who will challenge the drug test" in court, says Frank Uryasz, president of the National Center for Drug-Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo. "Any high school district should build into its budget the cost of defending its drug-testing program - and that might not be a small cost."
In states with tight budgets, even the cost of steroid tests - as much as $150 each - can be a nonstarter. As a result, many have set more modest goals:
• One Texas state representative, who wanted to mandate testing for all athletes on high-school playoff teams, is now pushing a bill that would establish education programs for students, parents, and coaches.
• In Michigan, the House recently passed a bill that would require high schools to ban students from sports if they abused steroids - though there was no provision for testing.
• Minnesota has taken a different tack altogether, with a bill to increase penalties for selling steroids illegally, including extra jail time if dealers sell to minors.
Last week, the California Interscholastic Federation, which administers high-school sports in the state, took a similar go-slow approach. It approved new rules, which include a requirement for every coach to complete steroid education this year, and for every school to come up with an anti-steroid policy to be signed by its athletes and their parents.
Testing would be "helpful," says spokeswoman Emmy Zack. "But now, it's just not possible because of the financial situation."
Connecticut's proposed pilot program, for example, would cost $200,000 - enough for 2,000 tests, covering less than 2 percent of the state's 95,000 high-school athletes.
In California, though, the fact that the state has some 700,000 high-school athletes and a multibillion-dollar budget deficit means that testing is, for now, off the table.
"Nobody wants kids doing [steroids], but how is [the testing] going to get paid for?" asks Rick Francis, president of the California State Athletic Directors Association. "Most districts are not going to do it when they can't even pay for textbooks."