Lance Armstrong. Ryan Braun. A-Rod. Marion Jones. Tim Montgomery. Tyson Gay. Bill Romanowski. Rafael Palmeiro. And so on … and so on.
We’ve all heard the names. We’re all familiar with the historic heights each of them achieved in their respective sports. And we have all witnessed their tragic, self-induced falls from grace.
Their respective careers are ruined. Their legacies disgraced. And, perhaps most tragically, all of the youngsters they once inspired are left confused and heartbroken.
The worst part? The high-profile names mentioned here are a tiny fraction of the incredibly long list of professional and amateur athletes who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Over the past decade, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has sanctioned cyclists and soccer players, water poloists and weightlifters, rowers, wrestlers, boxers and archers. And that’s just a small sample of the offenders.
But when officials in Texas revealed last July that nine high school athletes tested positive for steroid use – and that just recently, scandal-ridden Biogenesis of America provided PEDs to high school athletes in Miami – the conversation became slightly more sickening.
We were immediately filled with questions: What is the prevalence of PEDs in high schools? What types of PEDs are being used among high school athletes? What can be done to combat this trend?
Let’s answer these questions one by one.
The prevalence of PEDs in high schools
Roughly 3.2 percent of American high school kids – boys and girls – took steroid pills or shots without a doctor’s permission at least once in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey published in June 2012.
Bear in mind that the data collected reflects the 2011 school year and four U.S. states did not share data. Still, powerful conclusions can be drawn.
Assuming there were around 20 million kids enrolled in grades 9-12 in 2011, that means almost 640,000 kids tried some form of steroids without a prescription at least once in their lives. To put that number in perspective, it equates to one steroid user per 31 kids, or about one user in every class … in every school across the entire United States.
If that number sounds surprising, find comfort in the fact that it appears to be decreasing. The 2005 version of the survey reported the prevalence of steroid use to be 4 percent, which was down from 6.1 percent in 2003.
And although the numbers are trending in an encouraging direction, perhaps most alarming are the attitudes of the young users.
A study cited in the journal for the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons reported that 65 percent of teen steroid users would be willing to use a pill or powder, including dietary supplements, if it guaranteed they would reach their athletic goals, even if it might harm their health. In response to a second question, 57 percent of teen steroid users said they would use a performance enhancing substance even if it could shorten their lives.
Types of PEDs being used in high schools
The most common types of PEDs used among high school athletes include creatine, ephedra, anabolic steroids and steroid precursors, according to articles from the Mayo Clinic and the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions.
It is also important to note: This list is not extensive and does not include many of the most common PEDs used by professional athletes. It is written to specifically reference the most common PEDs among young athletes.
- Creatine is not a steroid. It is an over-the-counter supplement used by teen athletes to improve performance in activities that include short bursts of high-intensity activity. Examples include wrestling, power lifting, sprinting and football. High doses of creatine may be associated with kidney, liver or heart problems and some researchers consider it a stepping stone to more dangerous PEDs.
- Ephedrine is a stimulant banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is used to reduce fatigue, lose weight and maintain mental alertness. The use of ephedrine has been linked to strokes, seizures, heart attacks and, in some cases, death. Another very common stimulant among high school athletes is Ritalin – it is the prescribed medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of testosterone that can be taken orally, injected or absorbed through the skin via creams and gels. Anabolic steroids build muscle and increase endurance but have been shown to halt growth and damage the heart and liver. It is estimated that around three million American use anabolic steroids – 10 percent of which are teenagers.
- Steroid precursors are substances the body converts into anabolic steroids. These precursors are used to train harder, recover quicker and build muscle mass. Like anabolic steroids, precursors are illegal without a doctor’s prescription. The most common names include: androstenedione, androstenediol, norandrostenedione, norandrostenediol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
Combating the PED trend in high schools
It is impossible to provide specific instructions on how to identify and single-handedly stop the use of PEDs in young athletes.
A telltale sign often associated with PEDs is behavioral, emotional or psychological changes including aggression. Researchers also urge parents to take note of rapid weight gain or muscle growth; increased acne and facial bloating; needle marks in thighs or buttocks; and enlarged breasts in boys or smaller breasts in girls.
High schools across the country have also taken steps to combat the problem of PEDs but support is far from universal.
In June 2013, the Bandon High School Board (Ore.) introduced random drug testing for all students participating in competitive athletics and extracurricular activities, beginning this fall. Olentangy Liberty High School in Ohio has randomly tested its student-athletes since 1996. But the Raleigh County Board of Education (N.C.) recently voted down random drug testing of students.
Despite a 2002 Supreme Court ruling allowing states to randomly test students involved in competitive extracurricular activities, only Texas, New Jersey and Illinois have implemented statewide procedures to do so.
The way forward
Professional sports are an institution in America. As long as they hold a hallowed place in our culture, the successes and failures of sports stars will continue to influence and inspire our youth. We watch their wins with bated breath. Their losses hit us like landmines.
But every time another athlete is caught, another ban is levied or another test turns up positive, the game gets tarnished and the concepts of right and wrong get distorted.
It is no wonder that somehow, somewhere, our youth started thinking they needed PEDs to reach their athletic apex and win at the highest levels. Fortunately the research suggests the use of performance-enhancing drugs in schools is decreasing.
But the win-at-all-costs attitude that has become a permanent fixture in sports programs across all age groups in America is discouraging. Until players, parents and coaches all agree that winning, in fact, isn’t everything and that maybe you play the game because you love to play it, high school athletes will continue to look for an edge wherever one can be found.