It seemed like a good idea at the time. In the summer of 2007, with steroids in the headlines and public alarm at a fevered pitch, the Texas legislature voted to spend a whopping $6 million to test high school athletes.
"This will help ensure that athletics do not end up becoming a destructive force to the youth of Texas," the bill's author, Kyle Janek, vowed.
Fast-forward to today. After conducting more than 45,000 tests since January 2008 and finding just 19 cases of steroid use, the same politicians voted this past June to slice the program by two-thirds. One Texas legislator went so far as to call it a "colossal waste of taxpayer money."
What went wrong? A perfect storm of public hysteria, misguided social policy and lessons not learned.
Start with the hysteria. At the height of the panic, 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 only problem: The figure was completely bogus. Why? CDC researchers failed to distinguish between anabolic steroids, which are used for muscle gain and obtained illegally, and corticosteroids, which are used to treat conditions such as asthma and legally obtained by prescription.
As a result, kids who were taking asthma medication showed up as juicers.
Then there were the real-life horror stories that seemed to make those surveys seem ever more frightening. Take the 2005 case of Colleyville Heritage (Colleyville, Texas), where nine football players admitted juicing to get big. It generated an award-winning series in The Dallas Morning News and inspired the Texas legislature to pass the law mandating that every student-athlete be randomly tested.
The problem is that testing was the wrong answer. For one thing, the tests are expensive. Administered by The National Center for Drug Free Sport, each test costs roughly $160, compared to $20 for a standard drug test. And the tests used in Texas high schools aren't nearly as exhaustive as the ones used in pro sports and the Olympics. Add in the fact that information on cheating the system can easily be found on the Web and the result was a program that made Texans feel good but never had a real chance of working.
Texas, it should be noted, isn't the only state confronting the limits of steroid testing. New Jersey, which became the first in the nation to mandate testing in 2006, has been ridiculed for finding two positives in its first 1,000 tests -- at a cost of $200,000. And Florida threw in the towel on its $100,000 program after finding just one positive case among 600 students. Illinois had six positives out of its first 264 tests, but each athlete who tested positive had a medical exemption. So among the four states, only 22 legit users have been caught.
The problem isn't that schools aren't good at finding the right athletes. It's that they can't afford the "arms race." The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency monitors 3,000 athletes in the Olympic movement on an annual budget of $12 million. With 16 million high school athletes nationwide, the cost of testing all of them under the U.S. Anti-Doping standards would be unimaginable in flush times, let alone an economic downturn.
The lesson of the Colleyville Heritage case is that the most effective deterrent may be the involvement of friends and family. That school's problem was unmasked by a player's mom, Lori Lewis, who found needles in her son's closet and started asking the uncomfortable questions no one wanted to answer.
"You have to have trust," Lewis said afterward. "But if you can't, then you have to trust your eyes."
ESPN The Magazine senior writer Shaun Assael wrote "Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-Aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America's True Drug Addiction."