Schools don't know extent of steroid problem


February 27, 2007|By MILTON KENT

There was a telling, though clearly unintentional moment during yesterday's kickoff news conference at Towson High for a splashy new awareness campaign to curb the presumably runaway scourge of performance-enhancing drug use in high schools.

Just before a group of earnest young actors from Carroll County performed a brief skit about the ills of steroids, their teacher/adviser told the audience that the troupe would be performing an improvised routine, the kind where the actors know where they're going and where they'll end up, but not how they'll actually get there.

And that's how all the talk about eliminating high school steroid use feels, like improv theater, where we think there's a problem, but we're not sure how to find it or how to solve it.

For all the talk that has emerged in recent years about supposed steroid use in high school sports, or in the general high school population, the issue can essentially be boiled down to two questions.

The first is, how big a problem do we really think it's become, while the second is what are we prepared to do about it if there really is a problem?

The answer to the first query is an easy one. No one knows just how prevalent steroids are, either in high school gyms or classrooms.

According to a 2005 study, funded by the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, steroid use among eighth- and 10th-graders decreased each year from 2000 on. Among 12th-graders, steroid use took a downward turn to 1.5 percent in 2005 after four previous years of increased use.

In a way, high school steroid use is like sightings of the Yeti in Nepal, in that everyone swears it exists, but no one has actually seen it.

For instance, Brad Eastham, a baseball and junior varsity football coach at Towson, says he has heard stories "here and there" about steroid use at other schools, but has not seen or heard specific evidence of use.

"That doesn't mean that it [steroid use] is not going on," Eastham said. "If they [the students] are doing something illegally, they're going to keep it secret, especially to coaches and people of authority."

Fair point, but with the visibility that anabolic steroids have attracted recently, it's hard to imagine something beyond spotty, largely individual use of performance-enhancers going on in schools.

It would have been nice after yesterday's ceremony to question the Towson students in red T-shirts with the slogan "Powered by ME!" or, more tellingly, the young men in the school's weight room, about what they've seen or witnessed regarding performance-enhancing drug intake or distribution. However, the students were off-limits for questions, though one of them, a cross country runner, was allowed to express her gratitude for the existence of the program.

More likely than steroid use in high schools is increased use of supplements and energy boosters, because those products are far more accessible to high schoolers than steroids. Indeed, Eastham, who heads Towson's physical education department, says he fields a lot of questions about supplements and how to get stronger and how to improve one's body type.

"What I always tell the kids and what I've learned is the proper nutrition, proper diet and the proper way to do things is just that, eat right, exercise properly and go from there," Eastham said.

The second question, what are we prepared to do about steroid use in schools, if and when we find it, is the more nebulous one, and for good reason. Because we don't have an accurate grasp of how widespread steroids are in schools and school gyms, it's hard to come up with a concrete plan for combating them, or for punishing those who use them.

Besides, while there's plenty of room for politicians to posture on the matter, doing something beyond jumping from television camera to television camera and giving good sound bites requires, shall we say, intestinal fortitude.

One thing that is not likely to happen soon is random testing. Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's schools superintendent, said she doesn't think testing, even at state championships as New Jersey has begun to do, "is necessary now."

Neither, Grasmick said, would coaches be required to give their student-athletes a steroid warning or lecture before or during their seasons. Instead, Grasmick said, steroid information would become a part of the middle school curriculum "so our children will have the basic information before they get to high school."

Seems like a comprehensive statewide study on the use of steroids, supplements and energy-boosting materials would provide something of a road map of how best to proceed on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs, an issue that is, theoretically, too important to improvise.

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