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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Updated: March 5, 4:20 PM ET
High school testing loses momentum

By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine

Not long ago, America's high schools were being hailed as the next frontier in the sports world's war on drugs. In his 2004 State of the Union address, former President George W. Bush put the issue on the political radar by exhorting Americans "to get tough and to get rid of steroids now" as part of his call for additional funding for testing for illegal drugs in the nation's schools. Parents became mobilized as tragic tales of steroid-related teen suicides drew headlines.

Four years after the first statewide program was begun in the United States, however, steroid testing has become a hard sell. Last month, Florida threw in the towel on its $100,000 program after finding just one positive case among 600 students.

"We thought it was a good program, and [it was] serving a positive role," John Stewart, executive director of the state's high school athletic association, told reporters. "But we understand the reality of life, and that money was badly needed for other programs."

Florida's move leaves Texas, Illinois and New Jersey as the only states with random steroid-testing programs. And they aren't uncovering much more use. New Jersey found one positive in 500 postseason tests last year. Texas reported seven positives out of 19,000 tests done through the school year. The $3 million annual price tag on Texas's program led one Republican state senator to call the tests, which cost between $150 and $200 each, a "colossal waste of taxpayer money."

Supporters discount the low numbers of positive test results, arguing that the real value of random testing is deterrence. Kurt Gibson, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, says that while his state is only midway through the first year of its $150,000 pilot, he will not be concerned if its numbers mirror Texas' and New Jersey's.

"We feel there's great grassroots support for this," he says. "We talked to our members before we began this, and they all said they wanted it."

New Jersey's testing czar echoes the sentiment.

"Our goal isn't to catch kids. It's to prevent them from using," says Bob Baly, assistant director of the state's Interscholastic Athletic Association. "When we go into a school, the word gets around that we're there. Parents like that."

Donald Hooten
Donald Hooton, second from right, testifies during a March 2005 House committee hearing investigating steroid use in baseball. Hooten's son, Taylor Hooten, committed suicide after steroid use.

Texas, Illinois and New Jersey show no signs of abandoning their efforts, but enthusiasm appears to be waning across the rest of the country. Among the states that have considered and rejected steroid testing at the high school level are Delaware, Louisiana and California. In 2006, anti-steroid activist Donald Hooten predicted that the legislation enacted in Texas would spark "a wave of steroid testing that will cross the other 49 states."

Today, Hooten acknowledges, "It's going to be difficult with this economy."

How did an idea with so much initial public momentum suddenly lose so much support?

Because the very concept was flawed from the start.

Here are three reasons:

TESTS DON'T REALLY CATCH USERS

The National Center for Drug Free Sport, a private company based in Kansas City, Mo., received the contracts to run the programs in Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois. The company's president, Frank Uryasz, is a veteran of the drug-testing world, having worked for the NCAA from 1982 to 1999. (His company holds the contract to test for that organization, too.) He insists that the tests he uses look for the steroids that are "most used by most high school athletes."

But in some cases, that amounts to only a fraction of the known steroids.

Uryasz says that "a few of his clients" use an abbreviated version of the test recommended by WADA -- a "light" one that searches for only 10 of roughly 100 known steroids. Uryasz refused both to identify those clients, or to estimate what percent of his total tests fall into the abbreviated category.

"I will say that it's not just high schools," he wrote in an e-mail. "Some of our colleges and other sport clients elect to go this route."

For a 2007 story on ESPN.com, a New Jersey high school player revealed how easy it was to beat his state's program, which is confined to the postseason.

"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."

Uryasz insists that no one is hiring him to find positives. "We're not supposed to be a surveillance program," he says. "We're a deterrent."

Yet he acknowledges that he has no way to measure how much deterring his tests do.

"That will require further investment and study," he says.

In this economic climate, it's going to be hard to convince anyone to give more money to a company that has found only eight positive cases in 19,500 tests.

THE HIGH SCHOOL EPIDEMIC WASN'T AS GREAT AS IT SEEMED

At the height of the panic about steroids in American schools, the federal Centers for Disease Control released a headline-grabbing survey reporting that 7.3 percent of ninth-grade girls were on the juice.

The problem: The stat didn't stand up to scrutiny.

When Dr. Harrison Pope of McLean Hospital in Boston looked at the underlying questions that the CDC researchers used, he found that they failed to distinguish between anabolic steroids used for muscle gains, and corticosteroids used to treat conditions such as asthma.

More carefully worded studies by such groups as the National Household Survey found a far lower level of use among girls: just one-tenth of 1 percent.

"Anonymous surveys gave us a darker picture of steroid use in high schools than was accurate," Pope says. "If you ask a kid if he smoked marijuana, he'd know whether the answer was 'yes' or 'no.' But to kids, the word 'steroid' is ambiguous. A teenager might say, 'My doctor gave me steroids for my poison ivy. I'll answer yes.'"

The result, Pope says, was a rash of false-positive answers that statistically inflated the problem.

Pope also doubts the validity of a recent report from the University of Michigan that shows a 40 percent drop in 12th graders who said they used steroids in the past year. The usage declined to 1.5 percent last year from 2.5 percent in 2004.

He says media saturation has made kids smarter about understanding the differences among steroids, so they are answering the questions more accurately.

"I think use among kids has been flat," he says. "The big problem I see is with people age 20 and older."

HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETES CAN'T BE TESTED LIKE OLYMPIC ATHLETES

For all the talk about deterrence, there needs to be a credible chance that a test will catch users. The only way that will happen is if tests more closely mirror Olympic standards.

The World Anti-Doping Agency set off a firestorm last month by imposing a new rule that requires athletes in Olympic sports to supply the agency with information about where they will be for an hour each day -- seven days a week, between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. -- for three months at a time.

As the head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, put it: "Sports today has to pay a price for suspicion. The best way to alleviate the suspicion is to allow for out-of-competition testing."

Travis Tygart
Travis Tygart, executive director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says more education is a key to reducing high school steroids use.

But no one is willing to go that far with kids.

"The logic in the Olympics is that this is your job and it's reasonable to expect that you'll subject yourself to extremely rigorous testing," says Howard Jacobs, a defense attorney on doping issues. "How do you apply that to a ninth-grade varsity soccer player? It's just not appropriate to bring Olympic-quality testing to high schools."

So what is left without it?

Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says the short-term answer is more education and less broad-based testing.

"We have to tell kids, 'You have to live with yourself without feeling guilty about the cheating you've done,'" he says. "Once we can get through with that message, we can have a discussion about drug testing."

Tygart says that discussion will ultimately involve more-targeted programs, in which state and federal grants are used to fund in-depth steroid screens, doubling or tripling the number of steroids currently being monitored. Demographic analyses, aided by law enforcement data, would isolate suspected pockets of high use.

"It's naive to think that high school athletes aren't using drugs," he says. "But you can't have programs that are knee-jerk reactions to the headlines, either."

Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.