Student Well-Being

Steroid Testing Student-Athletes: Worth the Cost?

By Bryan Toporek — January 31, 2011 3 min read
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Back in 2008, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the country’s most expansive steroid-testing program for high school students, with a price tag of $6 million. All 700,000-plus public school student-athletes were eligible to be randomly chosen and forced to give a urine sample.

After fewer than two dozen students turned up positive in 50,000 tests, critics began decrying the program’s cost as a waste of taxpayer money.

Now, with the state facing a projected $15 billion deficit in its budget, the steroid-testing program could be on the outs. The Texas House of Representatives’ first draft budget axes the program’s money, but the Senate’s draft still includes its funding.

Supporters of the drug-testing program claim that while the tests haven’t turned up many positive results, the threat of drug-testing acts as a deterrent for student-athletes.

Texas is only one of three states—the others being New Jersey and Illinois—that currently test high school athletes for steroids. Florida ended its $100,000 steroid-testing program in 2009, after only finding one positive test in 600, blaming the cost of the program for its demise.

New Jersey was the first state in the U.S. to implement steroid testing for student-athletes back in 2007, but it’s run into many of the same problems that Texas has encountered.

First and foremost: After $400,000 worth of testing on 2,000 student-athletes in the past four years, New Jersey’s tests have only uncovered one steroid user. Under New Jersey’s plan, 500 student-athletes are tested every year, but the only athletes eligible to be tested are those who participate in state tournament games.

Some critics of New Jersey’s plan (and high school steroid tests in general) argue that placing limits on students eligible to be tested hurts the chances of uncovering steroid users, as the sample being tested isn’t truly random. But, with the cost of tests often running at over $100 per student, those arguing to expand steroid-testing programs find themselves with a hard sell in a time of massive budget cuts.

Illinois’ steroid-testing program is in the same boat: After spending $150,000 in 2008-09 to test 684 student-athletes for steroids, not a one turned up positive. Despite these results, Illinois and New Jersey, to date, have shown no signs of shying away from their respective programs.

As reported in 2009, some experts predicted the underwhelming numbers of positive tests; one compared the steroid-testing hysteria to “Reefer Madness.”

ESPN’s Shaun Assael also wrote about the topic of student-athlete steroid testing in early 2009, giving three reasons for the relative ineffectiveness of the steroid-testing programs: Some schools test for a fraction of known steroids, high school steroid usage wasn’t that large to begin with, and high school athletes can’t be tested as regularly as Olympic athletes.

In fact, back in 2007, one N.J. student-athlete anonymously explained to ESPN how easy it was to beat his state’s drug-testing system, after his high school football coach was found guilty of manufacturing and distributing anabolic steroids.

“Even if they do decide to test someone who has taken a substance, they easily could have cycled off it in the middle of the season and been fine,” he said. “You do steroids for three weeks, you put on 30 pounds of muscle. That muscle lasts you a long time.”

Which all leads back to the question: What can be done, in that case?

Clearly, no school is going to implement Olympic-style steroid testing for its student-athletes—the cost would be much too prohibitive. But, if the current tests are only finding positives in a fraction of a percent of the athletes tested, can the costs continue to be justified?

The bottom line: Are these steroid-testing programs enough of a deterrent for student-athletes that they’re worth the costs, despite the low number of positives that turn up?

This is what you can expect states to grapple with as they attempt to balance their budgets in the coming year.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.