Student Well-Being

Lawmakers Zero In on Steroid Use, Education

By John Gehring — May 10, 2005 5 min read
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State lawmakers around the country are introducing a flurry of proposals that call for mandatory steroid testing of student-athletes and related education programs for coaches.

The legislative activity comes in the wake of congressional hearings on steroid use in professional baseball, as well as national statistics showing an increase in steroid use among young people.

Don Hooton looks over his son Taylor's belongings at the Hootons' home in Plano, Texas last month. The teenager committed suicide in 2003 after using steroids.

While the legislative proposals vary in scope and timing, the action underscores the urgency that the issue is prompting at the state level, even as some skeptics see the concerns as overblown.

A bill in Florida would set up a statewide pilot testing program for a sport to be selected by the state’s governing body for high school athletics. The plan passed the House on April 28 by a unanimous vote and now awaits a hearing in the Senate.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has pledged to budget $330,000 to pay for random steroid testing of high school student-athletes, and has formed a task force on preventing steroid use, co-chaired by state Secretary of Education Veronica C. Garcia.

Gov. Richardson’s call for testing came at an April 25 “steroid summit” in Albuquerque that convened coaches, parents, doctors, and educators.

Connecticut’s House minority leader, Rep. Robert M. Ward, a Republican, is pushing for random steroid testing of high school athletes to begin within the next year. Mr. Ward, who estimates $200,000 could pay for about 2,000 random tests, would tap money from the state’s projected $492 million budget surplus this fiscal year to pay for the plan.

And in a twist on the same theme, Texas Rep. Phil King, a Republican, had called for testing high school athletes on teams that reach state playoffs, but the proposal drew strong opposition from local education leaders who had doubts about the effectiveness of testing and its potentially high costs.

While the costs of Mr. King’s idea would differ depending on the type of test conducted, most tests would cost more than $100 each, according to some estimates.

Mr. King changed course. He is now sponsoring a bill that would require the state’s governing body overseeing high school athletics to come up with a steroid education program for parents, teachers and students.

And in California, Sen. Jackie Speier, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would, among other provisions, require coaches to take classes about steroid use as part of earning coaching certification. The California Interscholastic Federation was also scheduled to vote May 6 on a similar proposal, as well as measures that would require schools to adopt specific written policies about steroid use and prohibit them from accepting sponsorships from companies that sell muscle- building supplements.

‘Ripple Effect’

The increased attention to the use of performing-enhancing drugs in high schools, observers say, is being driven by both national publicity about several high-profile professional baseball players who have been implicated in steroid scandals, as well as statistics that show a growing number of teenagers are experimenting with the drugs.

Anabolic steroids, which are either injected or taken orally, increase testosterone in the body and can bring rapid muscle growth. The drugs are illegal without a medical prescription, but are used legally to treat low amounts of testosterone and some types of impotence.

Steroid use among teenagers has more than doubled since 1991, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. That year, 2.7 percent of high school students reported having used steroids, a figure that had increased to 6.1 percent by 2003, according to the CDC.

“The hearings in Washington have piqued interest in local actions, and you get that ripple effect,” said Jerry Diehl, the assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which is based in Indianapolis.

But he cautioned that while calls for steroid testing seem to be gaining momentum, those efforts raise questions about the scope and cost of testing, as well as privacy concerns, that he said must be addressed.

“There needs to be surveys about what the needs are in the local community,” he added. “We know with school budgets nationwide, there is not a lot of money available for schools, so do you buy football helmets or drug tests?”

But Donald Hooton, whose 17-year-old son Taylor committed suicide in 2003 during a bout of depression after he stopped taking anabolic steroids, said the importance of education and testing programs outweighs any price tag.

“Until we get school officials to realize how widespread and dangerous these drugs are, we don’t stand a chance,” said Mr. Hooton, who speaks nationwide to educators and lawmakers as part of his work with the Plano, Texas-based Taylor Hooton Foundation for Fighting Steroid Abuse.

Mr. Hooton said his son was a junior-varsity high school pitcher in Plano, working to make the varsity team, when a coach told him he needed to get bigger. Taylor, who was over 6 feet tall and weighed 175 pounds, began taking steroids after meeting a 19-year-old drug dealer at the local YMCA, his father said.

“That coach never suggested he use steroids, but he never showed him how to get bigger or what diet or exercise program to get on,” Mr. Hooton said. “It borders on negligence to tell a teenage kid to get bigger and leave him to his own devices.”

Overstated Problem?

Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of neurological surgery at West Virginia University’s school of medicine, in Morgantown, said steroid use among young athletes is growing in part because of the example students get from the professional ranks.

“There is an influence that trickles down from the professional or elite athletes to the aspiring athlete that has created interest in these performance-enhancing drugs,” said Dr. Bailes, who once served as a team physician in the National Football League. “There is a sense that they are necessary to reach the highest level.”

He added that steroid use is not limited to male athletes looking to bulk up. In fact, he said, some studies show steroid use is highest among high school girls, who use steroids as a quick way to trim body fat.

Dr. Bailes supports steroid testing, but believes that education about the signs of steroid use, which include dramatic muscle gain over a short period of time and acne on the back and chest, are as important. Long-term effects of steroid use can include heart and liver damage, a depleted immune system, and depression.

For all the attention steroids are receiving now, some high school coaches say the problem is overstated.

“It’s just nuts to get all fired up about steroids, especially with all the problems we have with education in Florida,” said Dennis Lavelle, the head football coach at South Fork High School in Stuart, Fla. Mr. Lavelle, who has coached football for more than 30 years, said he’s never seen steroid use as a serious problem, and he doesn’t support legislation that mandates testing.

“[Lawmakers] will find out it’s not a big deal, and then it will require an act of God to get rid of the law,” he said.

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