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Steroids: Few Demanding That High-School Athletes 'Just Say No'

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Although many educators acknowledge that a growing number of high-school students are using steroids and other growth-enhancing drugs, few education organizations are prepared to mount a campaign against their abuse.

Unlike Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who lost his gold medal at the Seoul Olympics after testing positive for steroid use, virtually all high-school athletes can successfully compete using these potentially harmful substances without the threat of being penalized or disqualified from competition.

Despite a growing body of medical evidence that suggests that steroids cause irreparable harm, groups representing teach6ers, administrators, school-board members, physical educators, and state activities associations have neither called for a ban on these drugs nor initiated programs specifically devoted to eliminating their use.

"It's simply a can of worms that high schools aren't prepared to deal with--economically, professionally, or medically," said Harry Edwards, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on amateur sports. "Everybody knows and everybody feels that someone does it, but not on my team."

Although few statistics exist on the rate of steroid use among teenagers, experts believe that the problem is growing. As competition for college scholarships grows more acute, they say, more high-school athletes will feel the need to take steroids to win places on college squads.

Use at All Levels

Steroids have also become more popular with student weight-lifters interested in working out, experts say, as well as among teenagers who want to enhance their physiques.

In July, Charles E. Yesalis 3rd, professor of health and human services at Pennsylvania State University, testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime that almost 7 percent of the male high-school seniors he questioned in a recent national survey reported current or previous steroid use. On a national level, he said, from 250,000 to 500,000 teenagers may have used steroids.

A survey conducted by the Hazelton Foundation, a nonprofit Minneapolis agency that specializes in chemical-dependency issues and rehabilitation, found that 8 percent of the 12th-grade boys surveyed in 39 schools nationwide said they had used steroids at least once during the previous 30 days.

At the collegiate level, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has since 1986 been testing athletes for steroid use during bowl games or post-season play.

According to the ncaa, 1 to 2 percent of the athletes tested in 1986 and 1987 were found to have used steroids. Three percent of the football players who participated in bowl games tested positive in 1986. That figure dropped to 1 percent last year, the association said.

"It's a problem in the colleges that is filtering down to the high school," said Frank Uryasz, director of the sports-sciences department of the ncaa Mr. Uryasz, who said there are currently no cooperative efforts planned between his organization and high-school athletic groups to discourage steroid use, noted that as many as 50 percent of all offensive linemen playing college football may use steroids.

Such statistics, said Mr. Edwards, should not be surprising. Noting that few organizations governing high-school athletics have moved to ban steroids, he said that many students will do whatever it takes to win.

"Kids are using steroids because we as a society believe that winning is more important than integrity, honesty, and health itself," he said. "They know that what is stated is one thing, but what is actually demanded, necessary, and imperative in some cases is something else."

'Wide Open for Leadership'

Officials of state high-school activities associations, while acknowledging that some students may abuse steroids, said they were not sure how great a problem the drugs pose at the high-school level.

"A lot of kids who may be prone to using steroids may not be in the high schools," said Richard Stickle, executive director of target, a substance-abuse program run by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

"A lot of kids may do it during the transition to college," he said, adding that his organization includes information about steroids in its drug-prevention program.

"We have not seen a response from our membership that this is a problem," echoed John Johnson, a spokesman for the Michigan High School Activities Association.

Others, however, said more "proactive" activities are needed.

"It's possible that coaches have not taken enough of a stance," said Robert E. Morris, executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association, whose group adopted a resolution last year that criticized the use of steroids by teenagers.

"It would be naive to say there is no problem," said Edward Joseph, executive vice president of the Texas High School Coaches Association. "Kids tell me that steroids are as easy to get as aspirin, if you want them."

"It has to start, not at the collegiate level, but at the interscholastic level," argued Paul Grace, chairman of the board of certification for the National Athletic Trainers' Association. "Unfortunately, at the interscholastic level, not much is being done."

"That area is wide open for leadership," he said.

$100-Million Black Market

Steroid use among athletes is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1950's, athletes have been using the hormone-like drugs to build their muscle tissue and cut their training time.

Only recently, however, has more attention been focused on the unhealthy side effects of anabolic steroids, which are closely related to the male sex hormone, testosterone. In large doses, steroids have been linked with heart disease, sexual and reproductive disorders, immune deficiencies, liver problems, stunted growth, and overly aggressive behavior. (See box on this page.)

Steroids, which are normally ingested in pill form or injected as a liquid, are legally prescribed by doctors for a small number of disorders, including anemia, burns, and certain types of cancer.

In contrast, the steroids used by students are predominately purchased on the black market. According to many observers, students can easily purchase these drugs, which are smuggled from abroad or horded by unscrupulous doctors, in private gymnasiums, on the street, or through mail-order companies.

The federal Food and Drug Administration estimates that annual illegal sales of steroids may total $100 million.

Medical experts are especially concerned about the health effects of steroids on teenagers. Because their bodies are not yet fully developed, the experts maintain, young adults may unintentionally stunt their growth by taking steroids in doses that far exceed recommended levels.

Teenagers may also develop a psychological dependency on the drugs, they say.

"If the athlete takes steroids and becomes more aggressive and then stops and has a more passive approach [on the field], he may say to himself, 'Boy, I need the steroids to maintain my aggressiveness,"' said Mark Nelson, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on sports medecine. "You could call that a psychological addiction."

'Another Form of Cheating'

Medical associations have been paying more attention to teenage steroid use over the past two years than have education groups. In a statement adopted in late 1986, the American Medical Assocation called for more intensive education to com8bat steroid use. The American College of Sports Medecine last year also condemned the misuse of steroids.

In August, the aap released a statement that notes that taking steroids "is just another form of cheating. ... Competitors who enhance their athletic performance with anabolic steroids put the other competitors in the difficult position of either not taking them and conceding a perceived advantage to the abusing competitor, or taking them as well and accepting the risks of untoward side effects."

"Young athletes should not be placed in the situation of having to make such a choice," the group concluded.

States have also been paying more attention to steroids. During the past two legislative sessions, nine states have adopted measures that would increase penalties for those who illegally sell, distribute, or traffic in steroids. The Congress, in an omnibus drug bill, is also considering a measure that would make unauthorized steroid sales, which are currently a misdemeanor, a felony.

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