Starting a New Era: Education May Be The Best Way To End Steroid Use

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Starting a New Era:  Education May Be The Best Way To End Steroid Use
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Don Hooton’s mission in life is to educate parents, teachers, coaches and athletes about the dangers of using anabolic steroids and/or other performance enhancing drugs. He picked up this banner of, “education for all,” after his 17-year-old son Taylor, a former steroid user, committed suicide on July 15, 2003.

“Don’t tell me it’s not a problem,” Hooton said in an article shortly after his son’s death. “My kid just died.”

Taylor’s is just one of the deadly stories that can be found on the Taylor Hooton Foundation’s website. At least a dozen other tales, all equally as disappointing and heartbreaking as Hooton’s, can be found there. Most of the stories are of people who began using steroids while in junior or senior high school. This begs the question, “What are grade schools teaching our children about anabolic steroids?”

“Monitoring the Future” is an annual survey conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research that tracks the use of illicit drugs by 8th, 10th and 12th grade students in over 400 secondary schools across the country. According to the 2007 survey, the most recent results available, only 1.4 percent of 12th graders said they had used anabolic steroids, down significantly from the peak in use in 2004 at 2.5 percent. While that may seem like a low percentage, it means that for every 15,000 high school seniors, 211 are admitted anabolic steroid users. Also consider that the survey does not include dropouts or home-schooled students. 

It is also important to point out that while admitted use has dropped from its peak, the percentage of students that believe anabolic steroids present a risk to users has dropped 11 percent since 1998, to 57 percent. This means that only 57 percent or 8,600 students believe that anabolic steroids could harm the body.

The largest decrease in that span came between 1998 and 1999 when a drop of six percentage points was measured. According to the researchers, a drop this sharp indicates that there was a significant event that made steroids appear less risky.  

Ironically enough this coincides with the Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa homerun chase in Major League Baseball, what some point to as the beginning of the end of the “steroid era.” Late that summer, McGwire admitted to using androstenedione, or “Andro”, as a regular supplement. Andro was legal at the time and could be purchased over-the-counter at many pharmaceutical and health stores. A 2004 amendment to the Controlled Substances Act made androstenedione illegal in this country, now being classified as a Schedule III controlled substance.

So what exactly are schools teaching kids about steroids? For the most part, schools are relying solely on textbooks to educate teens about the dangers of steroid use. 

“All of our education is done through the curriculum, the health and phys. ed. classes,” said Jack Werner, Warren County School District’s Supervisor District-Wide Athletics/Co-Curricular Activities. 

Werner added that while there are no specific educational courses for athletes, the Warren County School District (WCSD) would consider “most any educational opportunity” that was presented to them. 

“Our coaches do have seminars with the athletic trainers to present information,” Werner said.  “Most are also members of coaches associations, like the National Federation of High School Coaches Association, that provide additional training and educational courses.”

Werner added that any training or courses that the coaches take would be “done on their own.” 

In October 2006 the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) announced that they had partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to launch the STAR Sportsmanship Program.  The pilot proposal indicated that the increase in poor sportsmanship, both on the field and during the school day, had led to an increase in the use of “illegal supplements” by students. The program, accessible to all PIAA student-athletes, coaches and parents, would help educate 3rd through 12th graders “in the area of good sportsmanship.” The STAR (Stop, Think, Act, and Replay) program would be divided into four sections, broken down by grade level plus one for coaches/parents.

The high school and coaches/parents sections would focus highly on steroids and substance abuse in an effort to make those students and coaches/parents aware of the dangers of abuse, and what signs and symptoms could indicate abuse. The results of the program were to be reported to the PIAA and the Department of Education in April 2007; however, those results are not available to the public as yet.

It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but is it enough to rely solely on curriculums to warn student-athletes about the dangers of steroids? Are we preparing these athletes for the temptations they may face when they arrive on a college campus?

Ryan Ewing, a freshman and football player at Edinboro University, said that a combination of his feelings, and the stringent testing, have prevented him from succumbing to temptation.

“There were guys on my (high school) team that used them,” Ewing said.  “The school didn’t have testing, though parents could voluntarily sign their kids up, but no one did.”

Ewing’s experience with testing at Plum Borough High School seems to mirror other testing policies in Pennsylvania high schools.

"There is no testing of any kind,” Werner said.  “It has been discussed, but there are budget concerns, student privacy concerns that prevent implementing a testing policy at this time.”

The WCSD Athletic Employee Handbook spells out the district’s policy on steroid use.

“Eligibility shall be limited until a doctor determines no residual evidence of steroids exists. The board may require participation in any drug counseling, rehab, testing, or other programs as a condition of reinstatement.”

Without testing, how would a player be “limited” from participating?

“There is no prescription for withholding students without direct information, either an observation of the student with drugs or an admission by the student of (steroid) use,” Werner said. “We would counsel the student first of all; I don’t think we would make an allegation. We would approach it through an educational aspect.”

Ewing said that he didn’t think steroid use was as prevalent in high school as it is in college. This seems to reflect the feelings of school administrators across the country, that steroids are not a big issue. Even after Hooton’s suicide, the administrators and coaches at Plano West High School didn’t seem to be too concerned, according to the article about Hooton’s suicide.

Mike Hughes, Athletic Director and football coach at Plano West, said in the article following Hooton’s death that in his 21 years at Plano West, he did not know of anyone taking steroids.

Blake Boydston, Hooton’s baseball coach, said, “I think steroids are at the bottom of the list (of challenges facing the school).”

Ewing said that he knows of players at other colleges that use steroids, even though the schools don’t condone their use. He added that Edinboro is a steroid- free program.

“Boro football does all they can to prevent drug use,” Ewing said. “There’s not a single player here that juices, not just steroids, but anything that gives an advantage.  Boro’s clean.” 

So how does a program at the college level manage to keep its players clean?  Edinboro does it through a combination of testing and educating.

“The NCAA tests three times randomly through the year, testing a total of 21 athletes,” Ewing said. “Boro tests us an additional five times every year, a total of eight tests.” Ewing added that the athletic trainers for the team have been invaluable in helping him stay clean and avoid any “accidental” positive tests.

“The trainers are very knowledgeable,” Ewing said. “We go twice a year to trainer’s meetings, and they tell us to bring any supplements to them before we take it so they can make sure there are no banned substances in them.”

Ewing added that he absolutely believes that steroids pose a serious risk to the body and that athletes need to be made aware of the risks.

 “(You are) taking a supplement that changes your genetic make-up,” Ewing said.  “There’s a difference between eating chicken breasts or drinking a protein shake after a workout and injecting steroids. It disrespects the sport, and it disrespects your body.”

It is important to note that it is not only athletes who are using steroids, there are many non-athletes using steroids in an effort to “improve” their looks, according to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 

The NIDA reports that some teens who abuse steroids to improve personal appearance may suffer from a behavioral condition known as muscle dysmorphia.  Men and women with this condition will view their bodies differently, but similarly feel that the effects of anabolic steroids will give them the physical appearance they crave.

“Men with muscle dysmorphia think that they look small and weak, even if they are large and muscular,” the report said.  “Similarly women with this condition think that they look fat and flabby, even though they are actually lean and muscular.”

The NIDA report also said that 25 percent of steroid abusers were physically or sexually abused as children.  The report said that those who had been raped or abused had turned to bodybuilding in an effort to discourage future attacks by making themselves “either intimidating or unattractive.”

The report said that less than four percent of America’s high schools test athletes for steroids. ESPN reported earlier this month that Florida had eliminated mandatory testing for high schools, leaving New Jersey, Texas and Illinois as the only states with a statewide testing policy.

The NIDA report offers advice as to which types of educational programs will be most beneficial in helping to prevent steroid abuse among teens. The report says that teaching only about the consequences of steroid abuse does not convince teens that anabolic steroids present a risk. It said that using a balanced approach is more credible to students.

“Presenting both the risks and benefits of anabolic steroid use is more effective in convincing adolescents about steroids’ negative effects,” the report said.

How are high school kids getting their hands on steroids in the first place? The answer is two-fold.

First, most teens taking steroids are getting them the same way they would get other illicit drugs, through dealers on the street, according to the DEA website dedicated to teen steroid use. The site said that most of the steroids sold on the street are smuggled in from Mexico or European countries, where they can be purchased legally over-the-counter.

The second, and more efficient, place that teens can buy steroids is through the internet. A Google search of “buy steroids” brings back a list of 692,000 results for websites to purchase anabolic steroids, HGH and other performance enhancing drugs.

Ewing said there were plenty of options available for him, had he wanted to start using steroids in high school

“I could have just asked around, it wasn’t as easy to find as someone with marijuana, but it was there,” Ewing said. “I also could have just gone online, that would be the easy way.”

As a nation, we need to start asking ourselves, “Whose responsibility is it to keep steroids and performance enhancing drugs out of sports?” The answer, really, is that it is the responsibility of everyone involved in any aspect of sports.

Primarily it has to come from parents giving young athletes a code of ethics and morals that dictate fair play and sportsmanship. Parents also need to be educated about the signs and symptoms of a steroid abuser.

“There is a checklist of symptoms, and [Taylor] was showing almost all of them,” Hooton said. “We didn’t know any better.”

Teachers, coaches, and athletic directors are responsible for the education of student-athletes to make them aware of not only the dangers of steroid abuse, but the consequences of using steroids to enhance athletic performance.

It also falls on us in the media; we have to be the voice of the people. We need to push for more research, more stringent testing policies and much more severe consequences for those who test positive.

Professional athletes and organizations must be at the forefront of the fight against performance enhancing drugs, as they are the ones who set the example for young athlete of how to attain professional status. If amateurs see the pros using steroids and performance enhancers and making it seem OK to do so. Then what is to prevent a young athlete from thinking that’s what they need to do to make it to the next level?

The Taylor Hooton Foundation recently announced that New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has joined their cause to help educate young athletes about the dangers of anabolic steroids. The announcement came just days after Rodriguez admitted to using performance enhancers during the 2001-2003 seasons while he was a member of the Texas Rangers.

“This is the first time that we have teamed up with a ballplayer that has made a mistake with steroids,” Hooton said in the announcement. “[Rodriguez] stressed that he wants to turn his mistake into something positive by focusing on youth anti-steroid education.”

In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of all of us to put the integrity back into our sports. Through a combined and focused effort we can end the rampant use of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs and start a whole new era in American sports…”The Anti-Steroid Era.”

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