A little more than four years ago, New Jersey became the first state to test high school athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. Since then, the state and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association have spent $400,000 to test about 2,000 student-athletes.
Only one student-athlete has tested positive.
Two other states — Texas and Florida — have tested high school athletes with similar results.
In Texas, nearly 50,000 tests since February 2008 have found about 20 confirmed cases of steroid use. The program began in 2007 with a $3 million annual budget but since has been reduced to $1 million and was almost eliminated completely this year due to the state’s budget crisis.
In Florida, only one of 600 students tested positive in 2008. The state ended its testing program in 2009.
But in New Jersey, despite only one positive test, state representatives and officials from the NJSIAA want to continue testing because they say it acts as a deterrent. The state and the NJSIAA, which oversees New Jersey high school sports, each contribute $50,000 a year to pay for the tests. Athletes who test positive for any of more than 80 banned substances — a list that includes anabolic steroids, some diuretics and other performance-enhancing drugs — face a one-year loss of eligibility.
“If I have anything to do with it, there absolutely will be money found for this next year and in the years to come,” said state Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex. “For such a small amount of money, you bring awareness to the issue. You plant a seed in an athlete’s head.”
Codey, who coaches youth basketball and is a sports fanatic who regularly attends Rutgers University football and Seton Hall men’s basketball games, was one of the driving forces behind New Jersey’s steroid-testing law when he was acting governor in 2005.
Under New Jersey’s plan, the NJSIAA randomly tests 500 athletes each year. But that group comes only from students who participate in state tournament games each year.
Cape-Atlantic League President Mike Gatley has also been athletic director at Hammonton High School for the last six years. He agrees with Codey that the testing plan serves as a good deterrent, but is flawed.
“You do get a skewed sample, however, by only testing the teams that make the playoffs. If you’re looking to get a truly random sample, you have to be able to go to a practice or game of any team at any time,” he said. “You should be able to test a football player from a team with a 2-3 record in mid-October, not just someone from a team that’s made an NJSIAA postseason competition.”
However, more testing means more money — a tough sell as New Jersey officials face huge deficits and look to trim budgets.
Dr. Linn Goldberg, of the Oregon Health & Science University, has been a frequent critic of all high school drug testing and is adamant that it’s a waste of time and money. Goldberg has done studies on the subject of testing and believes that education is much more successful than random testing.
“There’s absolutely no empirical evidence that this serves as a deterrent,” he said. “These legislators might as well be throwing those funds down a sinkhole. And announcing that testing is taking place during the playoffs is like telling drivers there’s a speed trap between Third and 15th avenues in a certain town. It becomes an I.Q. test instead of a drug test.”
Goldberg said testing doesn’t even work in professional sports.
“You think athletes in the Olympics or Tour de France don’t know there’s testing? Yet those events still yield positive test results. Education certainly works as a deterrent, but testing does not.”
Egg Harbor Township football coach Tony DeRosa said that testing and education must go hand in hand. Officials need to be proactive about warning athletes of the dangers of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. He said he has never used any illegal substances but grew up in the 1980s when steroids were talked of openly in high school weight rooms.
“We have to educate and, in a way, scare kids about the consequences of using these substances for one simple reason — they work. If you’re looking to add bulk and strength and power, using a banned nutritional supplement or an anabolic steroid will definitely help you get where you want to go,” DeRosa said. “But student-athletes don’t always think of the downsides. There are serious health risks, and there’s the whole sportsmanship aspect of using something that’s not ethical to help you get ahead.”
Many proponents of testing say it has increased awareness of steroid abuse.
A study by the Association Against Steroid Abuse showed that 2.7 percent of 12th-graders polled nationwide had tried steroids. That figure is down from 3.5 percent in 2003.
Joe Sprigg is a 17-year-old senior at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing. A running back for the school’s football team, Sprigg and his teammates recently played in the South Jersey Group IV title game against Cherokee High School. That kind of success made the Falcons’ players eligible for the random state testing.
“We weren’t tested in the end, but it wouldn’t have mattered because no one on this team would do anything like that,” Sprigg said. “Steroids can destroy your body. If you train the right and healthy way, your body is toned and strong.”
Sprigg said the self-policing culture of the football team’s locker room would quickly expose any player who wanted to use any banned substance.
“We would know right away if anyone was doing that — either using steroids or some kind of pill,” Sprigg said. “I’ve been around the team for four years, and there’s no way anyone could hide something like that.”
Bob Baly, the assistant director of the NJSIAA, said one of the reasons the state’s program works as a deterrent is that student-athletes can encounter pressures outside the halls of their high school.
“There are people who hang around in gyms, pushing this stuff to kids,” he said. “They fill their heads with all kinds of notions — that they can bench press 280 pounds ... that sort of thing. Sometimes the kid might not know the harmful effects of what they would be taking. In that sense, we’re hoping the parents and the athletic trainer at a high school would serve as the first line of defense.”
Baly said the feedback he’s received from parents is enough to let him know the program is worthwhile.
“Anecdotally, I’ve been told by a mother that she had a long talk with her athlete son after he brought home the contract and the list of banned substances, and she said it’s a conversation she would never have had otherwise,” he said.
“The parents like having this sort of deterrent in place. The analogy we make is that it’s like teaching your teenager to drive. You can give them all the information on safe driving that’s humanly possible, but it certainly helps that there might also be a policeman sitting down the block near that stop sign.”
Like Codey, State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, is a legislator with a background in athletics. An accomplished swimmer and coach of the sport, Whelan supports the state’s testing program both financially and in spirit.
“For such a small monetary outlay, you really buy yourself a safety net,” he said. “There aren’t many other ways you could get the word out there, and the schools are the best medium for reaching these kids. They may be able to hear peripherally about the dangers of these types of substances elsewhere, but the details are best passed on in the classrooms and by their coaches.”
Codey doesn’t care that only one athlete has tested positive.
“We have no way of knowing if the educational aspects and the deterrent that the testing program engenders stops young people from making horrible choices. I compare it to efforts to prevent and educate about youth suicide. We have no way of knowing how many people we’ve saved. If this (steroid and banned-substance testing) program keeps even one kid from making a bad decision, it’s worth it.”
Contact James Clark:
- About $400,000 has been spent in New Jersey to test for performance-enhancing drugs, and only one of 2,000 tests came back positive. Testing in other states has had similar results.
- “Skewed samples” result by testing only athletes whose teams make it to playoffs, as New Jersey does, according to one critic.
- Proponents say testing is a deterrent. Opponents say the tests are like throwing money “down a sinkhole.”