Testing teen athletes for steroids: worthy or wasteful?

    New Jersey’s proposed budget eliminates funding for testing high school athletes for drugs. Back in 2005, it was the first state to test for steroids.

    New Jersey’s proposed budget eliminates funding for testing high school athletes for drugs. Back in 2005, it was the first state to test for steroids.

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    The program is an attempt to deter high school students from turning to steroids or other performance enhancers. It targets student athletes in so-called high risk sports: football, baseball, track and field, swimming, lacrosse, and wrestling.

    Bob Baly is Assistant Director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which organizes the drug tests.

    He says students competing in state playoffs are subject to testing by a contracted testing lab.

    “They randomly select schools or individuals in those schools that they would test,” says Baly.

    But Dr. Linn Goldberg, Professor of Medicine at the Oregon Health Science University, says just testing those who make it to the playoffs is a waste of time and money.

    “It’s sort of like advertising: there’s going to be a speed trap, and we’re going to do a speed trap from street X to street Y, but nowhere else in the city are we going to have any radar to judge whether you’re speeding or not,” says Goldberg. “So, speed away on any other street. We’re only going to judge you from here to here.”

    In other words, athletes could juice all year, propel their teams into the playoffs, and then stop taking the performance enhancers to avoid detection.

    Dr. Goldberg has written extensively on steroid testing, and says the money could be spent better on prevention programs.

    John Miller, an associate professor at Texas Tech University, says testing and prevention aren’t inherently at odds. He says it can be an effective deterrent if applied appropriately.

    “There’s got to be a way to potentially identify those student athletes that may be taking drugs,” says Miller, “and therefore have a more effective way of utilizing money.”

    Looking purely at the testing, New Jersey’s program had little impact.

    In five years, only three athletes have tested positive for performance enhancers. One was found to have a rare medical condition wherein his body produced human growth hormone. He was not given any punishment.

    Dr. Goldberg argues the damage goes beyond wasting tax dollars.  He says his research shows merely doing the test is damaging to teens.

    “The kids who were involved in the drug testing arm of the study had less bonding to their school, felt worse about themselves as athletes, and actually increased risk factors for future drug use,” says Goldberg.

    Still, if New Jersey restores the funds, Bob Baly, using his own traffic cop analogy, says the state has every intention of reinstating the program.

    “You can educate students all you want about the ills of speeding in a car,” says Baly, “but unless there is some type of authority or policeman at the end of the street with a radar gun, they’re going to speed.”

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