High school sports are not immune to steroid problem


February 09, 2005|By John Eisenberg

IF ANYTHING, Jose Canseco's wild spray of accusations furthers the perception that steroids are used - and abused - primarily by high-profile athletes seeking greater wealth and celebrity.

But the scandal spreads far wider than that.

Like, possibly right into your neighborhood.

The use - and abuse - of steroids by high school athletes is startlingly pervasive and much more threatening to society's greater good than any sporting crimes committed by Canseco, Barry Bonds and others.

Some 3.5 percent of the high school seniors who participated in a recent national survey said they had used steroids at least once. Five percent of all high school students said they had used steroid pills or shots without a doctor's prescription, according to a 2001 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whatever the exact numbers are, they translate into tens of thousands of steroid users no older than 18, and in many cases, much younger.

That's an epidemic, and anyone who believes their school, sport or team is immune is either naive or just not paying attention.

"If you can get away with it and it gives you an edge, our world is becoming so competitive that people are going to do it," said Dr. Anthony Tommasello, director of the Office of Substance Abuse Studies at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

When I recently asked a high school athlete if he suspected anyone at his school was using steroids, I received a look that implied, "Are you kidding? Of course."

I suggest you ask the same question of any high school athletes you know, but be prepared for answers that might surprise you.

At this point, only two high school steroid scandals have been documented - one in Buckeye, Ariz., in 2003, and a recent one in Colleyville, Texas, involving nine football players.

But the lack of confirmed cases is attributable strictly to the absence of steroid testing in high school sports, not to the amount of use. Many school districts across the country can barely afford to field teams or transport athletes to games, much less fork out millions to test them for steroids and other drugs.

The lack of such tests leaves high school athletes free to do whatever they want to get bigger, stronger and faster, all potential difference-makers as they compete for college scholarships, pro contracts and hallway acclaim.

"I'm not sure I blame the parents or kids so much as the environment of getting a leg up by any means," Tommasello said. "But we're starting to see that there are costs involved, that the consequences are more significant than the rewards."

He was referring to the many potential health risks associated with steroids, which range from heart, liver and urinary ailments to physical injuries, mood swings and depression. Certain risks are especially dangerous when you're young, Tommasello said.

"At age 15 to 19, the body is going through a period of masculinization that includes a spike in the production of naturally produced testosterone," he said. "But if a person ingests steroids then, it tricks the body into thinking it doesn't need to go through that spurt. So bones don't reach the size they were designed to reach."

In other words - and what an irony this is - using steroids at a young age can actually stunt your growth, leading to a whole other series of ailments and lifelong conditions.

But as a means of swaying young people's behavior, such sober medical reasoning doesn't stand a chance against the sight of superstars swelling up and getting rich clouting homers and scoring touchdowns while their sports do next to nothing to stop them.

The tacit message in that benign deterrence is that steroids are basically acceptable, and "the situation could easily get worse as long as [using steroids] continues to be glamorized," Tommasello said.

What can we do to halt that glamorization? Whew, there's a question that desperately needs answering.

Major League Baseball's toothless new steroids policy certainly won't do the job; suspending first-time offenders for 10 days implies that using steroids is still just a misdemeanor.

But if that new policy is toughened over time, and the federal government cracks down even harder on distributors and crooked chemists, and evidence of a correlation between steroids and serious, life-threatening illnesses becomes more concrete, maybe then the glamorization will slowly give way to abhorrence.

Maybe then athletes will realize steroids aren't just unfair, but dangerous.

When enough people become vigilant about it and cognizant of the fact that this isn't just another sports scandal, but an insidious threat to young people, maybe then the influence that steroids wield will finally begin shrinking instead of expanding.

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