States Step Up to the Plate Against Steroids

 

While Congress threatens to root out the steroid abuse tarring professional baseball, states shaken by stories of young athletes juiced on performance-enhancing drugs are taking unprecedented first steps to clean up high school sports.

This session, legislatures in four states - California, Illinois, Texas and Virginia - passed measures to discourage steroid use by high school athletes, and bills were introduced in a dozen others. Virginia's law carries the toughest penalties: Students found to have used steroids become ineligible to participate in sports for two school years, and teachers and coaches can lose their teaching certificates if they fail to report student steroid use.

While state lawmakers so far have shied away from imposing drug tests, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is calling for random testing of high school athletes in his state.

Much like Congress' attention was grabbed by the allegations involving baseball stars in "Juiced," the book by former major league outfielder Jose Canseco, state lawmakers were spurred in part by specific incidents of steroid abuse among young athletes.

In Texas, nine students this year were discovered using steroids purchased by a teammate. Six Connecticut youths on football, track or baseball teams were arrested after getting caught with steroids acquired on a vacation to Mexico. Tragedy led the parents of two athletes - one in Texas and another in California - to lobby for stricter regulations after their sons committed suicide after taking steroids.

Before this year, seven states had weak statutes addressing steroid abuse, such as calling for health classes to cover the topic of steroids or requiring warning signs in locker rooms. The latest push marks an inroad into "new territory for states," said Sara Vitaska, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among the 10 states with the highest rates of student participation in high school athletics, all either have a steroid statute on the books or considered one this session.

Estimates of the prevalence of steroid abuse in high school sports vary. "Monitoring the Future," an annual survey by the University of Michigan, reported in April that 2.5 percent of 12 th -graders used steroids in the previous year. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control in 2003 reported that 6.2 percent of high school students had taken steroids illegally at least once.

States generally are staying away from policing steroid abuse at the college level. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has its own drug-testing standards and permanently bans any student who tests positive twice, for any of variety of banned substances, including steroids.

Rather than adopting the rigorous testing of college athletics, states are steering toward early intervention through better education, such as an Illinois law that requires school districts to develop steroid-abuse prevention instruction specifically for athletes.

California's bill, which is awaiting action by the governor, requires education for coaches and a pledge from athletes to stay drug free and prohibits schools from endorsing performance-enhancing substances. An earlier version, which included drug testing, was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.

In Texas -- with more high school athletes than any other state, including 150,000 football players - the Legislature sent to the governor a bill that requires a student pledge and an educational program, but that casts an eye toward future testing. If education is deemed insufficient after a year-long investigation, testing would begin.

One of the reasons states are slow to embrace drug tests is cost. An individual drug test can cost $100. A Florida bill for a pilot testing program passed the House unanimously, but floundered in the Senate because of a lack of funds.

New Mexico's governor already has pledged $330,000 for random drug testing and is pushing the Legislature for action next session, with the support of the New Mexico Activities Association, which regulates state high school sports.

"Generally speaking education is cheaper and you get more bang for your buck, … but there is no glamour in education. [Testing] makes the news," said Jerry Diehl, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

"What it comes down to is do you want to buy a football helmet or do you want to buy a drug test?" Diehl said.

Even so, about 4 percent of high schools already test for steroids, according to a nationwide 2003 survey of athletic directors. Of schools not testing for drugs, 54% cited prohibitive costs.

Besides financial obstacles, some schools are wary of drug testing because of privacy issues even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 upheld drug testing, even when it specifically targets a group of high school students, such as those in extracurricular activities.

Another approach considered by states is going after suppliers of steroids. A bill introduced in Minnesota would create sharper penalties for distributors by re-classifying steroids; individuals who provide the drugs to minors could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

"We need to make sure that all of our kids know that using steroids is wrong and unacceptable, and that begins with appropriately punishing those who are pushing these drugs," said Minnesota state Rep. Joe Atkins (D) author of the bill.

Other states with steroid legislation this year were Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering two bills to curtail steroid use in professional sports. The Clean Sports Act, which would cover the four major U.S. professional leagues, calls for a two-year ban for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second, with five tests per athlete per year. The measure has passed the House Government Reform Committee, which earlier this year called baseball's biggest sluggers to testify. Another bill carries the same penalties but would only require only two drug tests each year.

 
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