Last week, New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey ordered the nation's first statewide program to randomly test for steroids in high-school athletes across all sports. No question, steroid use is a serious problem, and Governor Codey has received high fives for his bold move. But his decision was out of bounds.
Not necessarily for legal reasons, since the Supreme Court has twice upheld drug testing of students (including random testing of athletes). And not necessarily for strategy reasons, because steroid testing of NCAA college football players has, for instance, helped reduce steroid use by that group. Pro and Olympic sports also rely heavily on testing to keep play fair.
But just because the practice passes muster with the feds and high-level sports, doesn't make it right for high school teens. These are children (big kids, but kids nonetheless) still under the care of parents and still learning to make their own decisions.
By making random testing compulsory, New Jersey undermines the responsibilities of parents to bring up their kids and teach them right from wrong. It detracts from young people reasoning their way to a moral conclusion about steroid use - a thought process vital to growing up - by emphasizing an up-or-down test. And it takes a personal decision about one's own body and a physical exam (either urine or blood, New Jersey hasn't settled on a method yet) out of the family setting and hands it to the state.
Mr. Codey, well-meaning and obviously concerned, admitted to this transfer of responsibility when he announced last week: "This is a growing public health threat, one we can't leave up to individual parents, coaches, or schools to handle."
Use of performance-enhancing drugs among high school students is limited, but growing. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found 3.4 percent of high school seniors nationwide admitted to using steroids at least once last year. New Jersey reports steroid use among high school students increased from 3 percent in 1995 to about 5 percent in 2001. Codey estimates the figure now could be as high as 8 percent.
Through steroids, young people seek to better their athletic performance and their chances of scholarships - or simply to craft their bodies. Medical experts point to dangerous side effects. And of course, by giving some athletes an advantage through juiced-up speed and strength, steroids erode the point of sport: fair competition of natural talent and self-improvement through hard, disciplined work.
But the best way to discourage kids from steroids is not New Jersey's plan to test about 5 percent of athletes headed to post-season tournament play (roughly 500 students a year). The best way is through awareness education, which has been proven to reduce recreational drug use among teens, and emphasis on the virtue of fair play. This leaves intact the privacy of students, and gets away from a presumption of guilt until proven innocent. At the same time, it fortifies the parenting, teaching, and coaching roles and responsibilities of adults in students' lives.
Fortunately, the New Jersey plan includes a strong educational component. It should stick to that, and forget the quick-fix testing.