Officals are aware of Steroid Use, They Say, but Unsure on Response
Amid new indications that anabolic-steroid use among high-school students is widespread and increasing, precollegiate athletics organizations are proceeding tentatively in their initial efforts to deal with the problem.
The Florida High School Activities Association has vowed to launch the first statewide steroid testing program next year. But it is unlikely other state associations will quickly follow suit.
Their officials say they fear legal challenges from civil-liberties groups and they cannot afford the tests, which cost about $100 each. And without testing programs, bans become unenforceable, officials of the organizations say.
The leading precollegiate organization plans to participate in a national campaign against the drug to be kicked off this summer. But athletics officials say such educational efforts face two formidable hurdles.
They must gain the active support of coaches, many of whom either question the medical evidence against steroids or know little about the drugs.
And they must convince competitive high-school students--on the basis of incomplete medical research and an ethic of fairness often viewed as old-fashioned by the young--not to use addictive substances that may make them stronger, more attractive, and more likely to win athletics scholarships to college.
"Somehow we have to convince athletes that the risk of steroid use outweighs any benefits, but it is difficult to do that," said Frank D. Uryasz, director of the sports-science department of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
"We are just learning more about steroid use at the high-school level," Mr. Uryasz said. "There has been a perception, until recently, that it has not been a problem."
Because the issue has largely been ignored, most high-school coaches may be ill-prepared to educate their players about the drug or discourage its use, said officials of national athletic organizations.
In an effort to develop an effective national anti-steroid campaign, the n.c.a.a., in cooperation with the National Federation of State High School Associations, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, will sponsor a July 30-31 forum on steroid abuse in Los Angeles.
The convention planners hope to present William J. Bennett, director of national drug-control policy, with a plan for curbing steroid use as part of his anti-drug program.
'Psychology Is Different'
But experts say any effort to eliminate use at the high-school level will have to adapt to the fact that young steroid users constitute a population much different from the "drug culture" of marijuana or cocaine.
"It is not a recreational drug and the psychology of the user is different," said Gary Goranson, a spokesman for the National Strength and Conditioning Association of Lincoln, Neb. "The steroid user is more prone to being a winner."
While an estimated one-third of steroid users are nonathletes who take the drug to improve their physiques, the majority are athletes who are not easily stigmatized as "losers" and do not show any signs, outwardly at least, of anything but positive health effects.
The male high-school students who use steroids are mostly "all-American boys," said Mr. Uryasz of the ncaa
In a 1987 survey of 3,403 12th-grade boys in 46 schools nationwide, Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania State University, found that 6.64 percent had tried or were currently using steroids.
Mr. Yesalis said last week that the boys surveyed probably under-reported their steroid usage and that a more realistic figure is "at least 7 percent." He estimated that steroids are used by about 1 percent of 12th-grade girls.
In a recent report, Mr. Yesalis said his survey also found that 3 percent of the 12th graders were heavy users who had taken steroids for at least a year, some in quantities higher than those consumed by professional football players.
The responses of the heavy users revealed that they may have the same level of psychological dependency as found among abusers of other drugs, the researcher said.
Some 51 percent said they would continue to use steroids even if they were determined to cause sterility; 42 percent said they would not quit using steroids even if they caused cancer or greatly increased the risk of heart attack before the age of 40.
Thirty-eight percent of the users said they injected the drugs; 44 percent had "stacked" steroids, or used more than one kind at once.
80 Percent Reported Usage
Another new survey reveals awareness of the phenomenon among coaches.
In an informal poll of 3,628 high-school coaches released last week by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, more than 80 percent of the coaches said between 1 and 5 percent of the students in their school had used steroids, and one-third said steroid use among male students had increased in the last two years.
Eighty-six percent of the coaches surveyed said they had discussed anabolic steroids with admitted users or students who were curious about the drug.
"This is not a hidden issue," said Mr. Goranson of the nsca.
About 13 percent of the coaches in the n.s.c.a. survey said they believed it was possible for athletes to use but not abuse steroids in reaching their athletic goals.
While nearly two-thirds of the coaches said they were confident of their ability to describe the physicial and psychological effects of anabolic steroids, less than one-third said they were able to detect which students had taken the drugs.
Thirty-three percent of the coaches said they believed that anabolic steroids could positively influence athletic performance in endurance events such as long-distance running or swimming, while only 29 percent rejected the false claim.
'The First Chore'
If national campaigns are to convince athletes not to use steroids, ''the first chore we have is convincing coaches," said Richard Stickle, executive director of target, a substance-abuse program run by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
But Robert E. Morris, executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association, which is only now drafting a formal statement against steroid use, said more medical research into the long-term effects of steroids needs to be done before coaches can honestly tell their athletes that steroids are dangerous.
"The scare tactics aren't going to work," Mr. Morris said. "The plain fact is we don't know what steroids do to you. I believe they are bad, but I cannot honestly tell somebody they are bad."
Describing anti-steroid efforts waged so far as "well-meaning" but filled with misinformation, he added, "A couple of years ago they said steroids don't work, which is the biggest lie of all."
"I am much more concerned about the health effects of tobacco, alcohol, and cocaine than I am about steroids," said Mr. Yesalis of Penn State. "I know that tobacco, alcohol, and cocaine kill. I don't know that about steroids."
Much of the uncertainty surrounding anabolic steroids is due to the fact that the medical community has only recently focused on the unhealthy side effects of the drugs, which are closely related to the male sex hormone, testosterone. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1988.)
Athletes Are 'Laboratory Tests'
Researchers know that, in the short term, steroids can cause sexual and reproductive disorders, overly aggressive behavior, immune deficiencies and other problems. But most of these side effects are reversible among male athletes who stop taking the drugs.
In the long term, steroids have been linked with liver cancer and heart disease, but neither of these side effects has been shown to occur frequently as a direct result of steroid use.
Researchers say one of the chief obstacles they have faced is the fact that it has been unethical to experiment on humans by administering steroids in the quantities commonly used by athletes.
"The drug companies have never conceived of giving the drugs in such large doses," said Karl Friedl, a U.S. Army research physiologist who has conducted steroid tests. "Basically, the athletes who are using them right now are setting themselves up to be the laboratory tests.''
Even if the medical case against steroids becomes stronger, it may be difficult to get students to heed the warnings.
"We're dealing with a population that is not easily frightened off,'' Mr. Uryasz said. "When you are 16 or 17 or 18 years old, you think you are going to live forever anyway."
Mr. Goranson said the n.s.c.a. campaign has addressed this obstacle by focusing on the hazards posed by the "black market" steroids most high-school students use. More than half of these come from laboratories outside the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Mr. Goranson said his organization's campaign also encourages athletes to use good nutrition and conditioning to achieve what they are seeking to accomplish through steroids.
But the fact is that "steroids work, period," argued Mr. Morris. "Theo takes steroids is still going to have the advantage."
Don T. Reynolds, a member of executive committee for the Florida athletics association, said the intent of his group's proposed testing program is to keep students who take steroids from having an advantage.
"There's no reason for these associations to exist if we don't do everything we can for fair play," Mr. Reynolds said.
He said the f.h.s.a.a. plan was sparked by an incident at last year's state weight-lifting championship in which a student athlete attacked a competitor over a seemingly innocuous remark.
Many of the coaches present believed, according to Mr. Reynolds, that the attacking student was showing the symptoms of a "'roid rage," a violent, senseless fit of aggression associated with heavy steroid users.
A subsequent f.h.s.a.a. survey of 361 high-school principals found 336, or 93 percent, in favor of a statewide testing program and only about four principals opposed.
The association's governing board resolved to randomly test athletes next year. But its efforts have been slowed by concern over the reliability of the tests and the costs of such a program--about $100 a test, if it calls on one of the two laboratories in the country that have been certified for Olympic use.
Several organization officials said many other districts and states have been unwilling to implement steroid testing for fear of lawsuits.
But Fletcher N. Baldwin Jr., a University of Florida constitutional law professor who counseled the state group, said an athlete drug-testing program at the Tippekanoe School District in Indiana has thus far withstood court challenges.
The Florida program probably would be found constitutional as well, he advised, as long as it does not target specific groups of athletes, does no educational harm, and respects the athletes' right to privacy.
"We're not out to punish anybody," Mr. Reynolds said. "That's not our intent."
The association has not yet determined how it would treat steroid users, but Mr. Reynolds said he favored fining their coaches and prohibiting the athletes from playing.
A Ready Supply
Student athletes who continue to use steroids are likely to find a ready supply.
Of the coaches who responded to the n.s.c.a. survey, 86 percent said students are buying steroids at health clubs; 22 percent said students are getting them through the mail; 20 percent said students are buying them at school; and 11 percent said students are being prescribed steroids by their doctors.
Federal law prohibits the illegal distribution of steroids but does not regard them as a controlled substance.
Only Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas classify steroids as controlled substances. Less than a fourth of the states have enacted any laws or regulations dealing with steroids, although steroid bills have been introduced in several legislatures, federal officials said.
"The appetites for these drugs are created solely by society, because we have a win-at-all-costs philosophy and we put an emphasis on appearance," Mr. Yesalis said.
"Any coach who says you could make the first string if you were 15 pounds heavier encourages steroid use," the researcher added. "Any parent who says sports is more than a pasttime, more than fun, encourages steroid use."