High school drug testing in New Jersey -- is it worth it?
At least three times a week during basketball season, Dick Codey, president of the New Jersey Senate, paces the hard court, coaching a traveling team from West Orange called the Knights. With his two sons grown, Codey still enjoys the innocence of youth sports. But he also recognizes that these days, even young kids ask adult questions about steroids.
"I always want to say to them, 'Cheating, you don't want to cheat,'" he said during a break in the action last month. "And that's important to get across."
As New Jersey's acting governor in late 2005, Codey signed an executive order that qualifies any student who reaches a state championship tournament for random steroid testing. This fall, the results of the program's first year were released: Of 500 students tested, one turned up positive. Codey is proud of that. "We're educating them, we're putting fear in them, so we think it's a winner here in New Jersey," he said.
But in East Hanover, N.J., the community has reason to wonder how well the program really is working. This past March, residents there awoke to the news that Anthony Cuppari, a volunteer coach for their high school's football team, the Hornets, had been arrested for manufacturing and distributing anabolic steroids.
The Morris County Prosecutor's Office did not accuse any Hanover Park students of buying steroids from Cuppari during the 2006 season, when the team went 7-4. But in an exclusive interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," a member of that squad alleged that "probably between six and 12" of his teammates were on steroids.
"You [had] kids in the course of a month putting 60 pounds on your bench press," he said. "You had kids doing weights that were unprecedented in the school history."
Hanover Park Principal Edward Franko declined repeated requests for an interview. He also refused to make the school's football coach, Dan Gregory, available for comment. E-mails sent to seven other players from the 2006 Hornets team were not answered.
In a wide-ranging interview, the teen, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, insisted he never used the drugs. He said his teammates had an attitude toward random testing that was, at best, cavalier. "The chances of you being tested are so small that the reward of doing steroids is definitely worth the risk of being caught," he said.
"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. You do steroids for three weeks, you put on 30 pounds of muscle, that muscle lasts you a long time."
Such frank insights are bound to add fuel to a debate that is raging in legislatures across the nation: How far must education officials go to deter steroid use? And is it worth the cost?
Texas is about to begin the largest program in the nation, spending $3 million next school year to test 3.3 percent of its student-athletes in the regular season. That will be about 25,000 high school athletes --16 times the number monitored in New Jersey.
But not everyone is convinced that such heavy investment is wise, especially at a time of competition for scarce resources.
Outside The Lines
For more on New Jersey's program for random high schools steroid testing, watch "Outside The Lines" on Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN.
"It's hard, because where do you stop?" asked Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association. His group has decided to oppose a bill that recently was introduced in the state's Senate that would mandate statewide testing and possibly punish entire teams if a single student tested positive.
"We don't recommend that our members go down this road, because it is terribly expensive and the jury is out about whether it's an effective way to deter use," he said.
Adding to the confusion is uncertainty about how endemic the use of performance-enhancing drugs is in high schools. On Dec. 11, the White House released the results of a study that it says shows steroid use among children is down 33 percent. When 40,000 kids ages 12 to 17 were asked if they had tried steroids in the past month, the past year or any time at all, 0.6 percent answered "yes" -- a drop from 0.9 percent in 2001.
Scott Burns, deputy director of White House drug policy, said the results show high school steroid testing works and should be expanded to every state. "We think it is an essential tool," he said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. "For a small amount of money, we send a message to young people."
Indeed, the veteran of the 2006 Hanover Park squad underscored the allure steroids have when asked to describe the risks versus the rewards. As he put it: "The rewards [are] getting a full ride into a top college to play sports, being the man in your high school, being the one everybody looks up to, everybody walks around and says 'wow' to -- the kid that nobody messes with. The rewards are pretty much endless."
Codey isn't finished with his signature issue. He's considering introducing a new bill that would allow for roughly 1,000 tests to be conducted throughout the school year.
"What I'd like to do is have a system where we can walk into the school and say, 'OK, we know that Jack Snow or whomever is an athlete. Tell him to come down to the office, we're going to escort him to the men's room.' And I think that's the best way to do it, so you know ahead of time that you could be tested at any point during the year, whether your particular sport is in season or not."
Even then, the odds of getting caught would be small. But Codey is playing those odds in the hopes that it will discourage student-athletes from hiding steroid secrets like the ones exposed by the Hanover Park player.
"I understand that some may think the odds are small, because they are," Codey said. "But I sure as hell wouldn't want to be the kid that got caught who thought the odds were small."
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Outside the Lines" producer Lindsay Rovegno also contributed to this report.
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