Do Random Tests Keep Teen Athletes Off Steroids?

In 2007, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the country's most expansive and expensive steroid testing program for high school students.

The most frequently tested athletes were football players, and they had the vast majority of positive results. But those results have received a mixed response.

"We just finished up for the '08-'09 school year in May, and in that total time we tested 45,193 student athletes," says Mark Cousins, chief of staff of the University Interscholastic League.

Football players enter a football field i i

The most frequently tested sport in Texas was high school football, and the majority of those who tested positive for steroid use were football players. Doug Benc/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Doug Benc/Getty Images
Football players enter a football field

The most frequently tested sport in Texas was high school football, and the majority of those who tested positive for steroid use were football players.

Doug Benc/Getty Images

According to Cousins, who is in charge of administering the state's steroid testing programs for all high school athletes, there were 19 positive results.

That's less than one-20th of 1 percent of those tested.

What Does 19 Mean?

Anti-steroids activists say the program is working.

"The program really, really worked and was effective and got a lot of kids to stop," says Don Hooton, president of the Taylor Hooton Foundation. The organization is named for Don's son who committed suicide after abruptly quitting steroids while in high school.

Hooton has testified before Congress and strongly advocated that the Texas Legislature pass the testing bill in 2007.

If you had asked him then, Hooton says, he wouldn't have been surprised by 1,000 positive results. Still, 19 means that the program was a great deterrent, he says. But he fears that others will draw the opposite conclusion.

"We've got some folks that are opposed to testing just because it's testing — you know, our-civil-rights folks who'd like to read into this that we've wasted money," Hooton says. "I don't think we've wasted a nickel on this program."

At Trinity High School in Euless, Texas, Andrew Eteeocky and Na'a Moeakiola say they think testing could deter the use of steroids.

"The testing is random. It was just a random time. I didn't know I was going to get tested," Eteeocky says. "I think a lot of kids are scared of that, too, if they are thinking about using [steroids]."

"Yeah, I think they would be scared and not want to get caught if they're in sports so they would stop it," Moeakiola says.

Gov. Perry, who signed the program into law, looked at the 19 positives and concluded: "Our kids aren't anywhere near as enthralled with these enhancing drugs as some people seemed to think two years ago."

Steroid Testing As Speeding?

In the course of reporting this story, an analogy kept resurfacing: Random testing is to steroid use as radar guns are to speeding.

The other states that test players reported similar numbers. Florida scrapped its program last year after reporting only one positive result; New Jersey continues testing a few hundred athletes after getting only two positives; and Illinois has actually expanded its testing despite the fact that none of the 700 students it tested resulted in a confirmed positive.

Testing Problems

The difficulty with testing, says Oregon Health & Science University Professor Linn Goldberg, is that the low number of positives might say more about the test than about the steroid problem.

"I'm surprised you can find anyone, with so few kids being tested," Goldberg says.

Texas tested 45,000 students, but in trying to catch steroid users — who may number as few as 1 in 100 players — 45,000 isn't that big a number at all. Add in the fact that Texas doesn't test during the summer, and Goldberg fears that a flawed test might lead some to the wrong conclusion.

As for the idea that any amount of testing is a deterrent, Goldberg's studies don't bear that out.

"Ninety-four out of 100 kids know they'll never be tested," Goldberg says. "We found that to increase the awareness of being tested, we had to go up to 50 percent."

The statistics aren't as impressive to Hooton as his conviction that a testing program might have saved his son.

"I believe if Taylor had thought he'd be caught, he'd have stayed away from the stuff," Hooton says.

Hooton does say something that Golbderg, Cousins and the national anti-steroids activists all agree with: Testing isn't the No. 1 tool in the fight against steroids — it's education.

The Texas Legislature has decided to cut its steroid testing program by two-thirds this year. The sponsor of the original bill says even if 30,000 fewer students are tested, the program will still act as an effective deterrent.

Steroid Testing Like A Speed Trap?

In the course of reporting on random testing of high school students for steroids, one analogy came up time and time again: Random drug testing is to steroid use as radar guns are to speeding.

"Adolescents, if you tell them speeding is dangerous, they're still going to speed. If you tell them about the cop around the corner with the radar gun, hopefully they slow down. It's the fear of being caught," Bob Baly, assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, told the AP.

Kurt Gibson, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, essentially oversees Illinois' testing program. Though Illinois testing returned no confirmed positives, the state is expanding its program, and Gibson says the schools are very happy with it. He resisted the suggestion that there was another interpretation of zero positives aside from the testing being a deterrent.

Using the radar gun analogy regarding Illinois' zero positives, couldn't some argue that the radar gun might be broken?

"Maybe," Gibson answered, "but we would take the position that by putting a speed limit sign out there, that's enough of a threat to let people know where the bar is where the limit is that they'll make the right choice and drive within the confines of that."

Linn Goldberg of Oregon Health & Science University has studied random steroid testing programs and found that the kind that are currently in place are ineffective. He likens some random steroid-testing programs that test athletes during the playoffs to speed traps.

"It's like advertising that you have a cop with a radar gun between 5th Street and 20th Street, and you've also advertised that [at] no place else will there be a radar gun," Goldberg says. "What you're doing is really an IQ test, telling people when they will test and under what conditions they will test. So it's not random, it's not unannounced, it's not at any time."

The problem with a good analogy is that it's just an analogy. Speeding and steroids kill. Speeding and steroids are both unlawful. But while speeders are pulled over every day, the random steroid user has proved much more elusive.

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