Ten days ago, a cavalcade of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars testified before Congress, yet another in a series of revelations about steroid use that have rocked the sports world.
Those revelations are felt acutely in places like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. But their consequences extend past those baseball hotbeds right into smaller cities and towns, including Columbia.
Steroid opponents fear that the apparent use by professional athletes sends the wrong message to teenagers. According to a nationwide study by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, steroid use among eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders has increased nearly every year since 1991. The 2004 study shows that 2.5 percent of 12th-graders — or one out of every 40 students surveyed — admitted to using steroids.
By those measures, steroid use among young people is prevalent. But in Columbia, little hard evidence of teen steroid use exists.
“We haven’t seen student-athletes that have grown immensely or seen a big change in attitude,” said Vicki Reimler, athletic director at Rock Bridge High School. “But I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s not a problem at all.”
After a number of Olympics scandals and now an investigation that threatens to stain the national pastime, steroids have become a dirty word around most athletes, at least in public. But, as the University of Michigan study suggests, use is still a problem — one with possibly dire consequences.
Anabolic steroids are drugs intended to build weight and muscle by adding testosterone or similar substances to the bloodstream. When a steroid enters a muscle cell, it causes the cell to produce more protein, which increases muscle mass and strength and amplifies the effect of weightlifting or other exercise.
But there are dangerous side effects. These include “roid rage,” the mood swings and aggressive behavior some users develop. Other side effects for males are acne, baldness, breast formation and reduced testicle size. Females could experience a deeper voice, facial hair, baldness and a reduction in breast size.
For some, there are more serious consequences. Increased muscle size can cause tendon injuries, and steroid use can also cause liver damage, high blood pressure and heart disease. Withdrawal from steroid use can cause such a deep depression that those trying to quit can become suicidal.
Augie Garrido, baseball coach of the University of Texas’ top-ranked team, said that one of the reasons he is adamantly against steroids is because of the drugs’ health risks.
“It’s not so much about do they have an advantage because they get bigger, faster, stronger, but they also die younger,” he said.
In the weightlifting world, steroids have long lurked in the background. A top professional event sponsored by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has come under fire because of the actor-turned-politician’s opposition to mandatory testing.
In Columbia, serious weightlifters gather at Clark’s Championship Gym in Lake of the Woods. All gym members must submit to urine tests, said gym owner Bill Clark.
Clark is also secretary and drug enforcement officer for the United States All-Round Weightlifting Association, which also tests its competitors.
As the association’s enforcement officer, Clark tests athletes at weightlifting competitions around the country. Most of those tests come back negative, he said. The positive tests he sees often result from non-prescription drugs and supplements, including ephedra, an herb used to increase adrenaline.
The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that ephedra is unsafe. The supplement is banned in many sports, but it is still an ingredient in some supplements, though it might not be listed on the label.
Clark’s gym follows the same guidelines for steroid use outlined by the United States All-Round Weightlifting Association: no use of performance-enhancing supplement whatsoever, whether pharmaceutical or herbal.
“What small membership we have is totally drug-free,” Clark said.
Clark also said he wished more schools and parents would encourage the zero-tolerance practice for high-school-age athletes.
“Testing, with parental permission, should start at any point where the kids are in a heavy lifting program,” he said. “The earlier the kid learns, the more he’s going to be clean.”
In local high schools, the true extent of steroid use is difficult to determine because no mid-Missouri schools test their students.
South Callaway High School in Mokane is one of the few Missouri high schools that tests its athletes for illegal drugs, but those tests don’t look for steroids.
Athletic director Randy Riddle said the drug tests, which were implemented about five years ago, look for use of six drugs, including marijuana, opiates, cocaine and methamphetamine.
“I don’t know that the problem (steroids) is there,” Riddle said. “Of course, we’re a smaller school. I’d like to think we don’t have anybody doing steroids.”
There have been numerous reports of
steroid use by high school athletes around the country, including two recent episodes that led to the suspension of coaches and athletes in Texas and Arizona.
In Columbia, athletic directors at Rockbridge and Hickman high schools say they don’t think steroids are a problem that needs immediate attention.
“It’s not a big topic or issue at the high school level,” said Hickman Athletic Director Doug Mirts.
The numbers in the University of Michigan study seem to say otherwise. Two and a half percent of high school students might be using steroids, but that percentage grows when taking into account that only a fraction of students participate in sports.
At Hickman, where there are roughly 650 student-athletes, that would translate into about 16 steroid users under the Michigan analysis.
Mirts said that Hickman doesn’t need tests to detect users.
“There’s a lot of signals of steroid use, and we’re not seeing those types of things,” he said. “Obviously, if we did see those things, we would inform parents and medical professionals.”
The Missouri State High School Activities Association, the Columbia-based governing body for high school sports in the state, does not specifically mention steroids in its policy on substance abuse.
A policy adopted in 1999 refers to “use of drugs, medicine and food supplements in interscholastic sports.” But this policy doesn’t call for testing of athletes. It doesn’t even explicitly state that performance-enhancing drugs or other supplements should not be used. It simply states that “there is a growing concern” over steroid use and “school personnel and coaches should never supply, recommend or permit the use of any drug, medication or food supplement solely for performance enhancing purposes.”
Fred Binggeli, assistant executive director for the association, said that one reason there is no specific statute on steroid use in Missouri high schools is that the National Federation of High Schools doesn’t have one either. And one reason for this, Binggeli said, is that scientific studies regarding the long-term effects of steroid use are still inconclusive.
“Ours is more of a recommendation,” Binggeli said. “We don’t have anything in black and white that says, ‘If you do this, this will happen.’ ”
The athletic directors at Hickman, South Callaway and Rock Bridge each said that consequences for any detected steroid use would be covered in their school’s alcohol and drug use policies. Those consequences include meetings with parents and administrators, substance abuse programs and suspensions from participating in activities.
All three athletic directors also said that whenever information about steroid education is given to them, they present it to coaches and athletes.
Without testing, however, high schools have to rely on human detection to find any steroid users. At Rock Bridge, Reimler said her school’s reluctance to test also had to do with logistical issues.
“I would certainly want it to be a Columbia Public Schools policy, because we need their support in such a venture,” Reimler said. “It’s not as if we don’t know that it’s an issue, but we don’t want to jump in.”
There are other issues too. The Activity Association’s spokesman, Rick Kindhart, said his organization allows schools to make their own decision on a policy. In addition, for athletes younger than 18, tests could be considered an invasion of privacy.
“It gets to be a local and citizen issue,” he said.
Steroids tests can also be expensive. Rex Sharp, the head athletic trainer at MU, said a steroid test can cost $100 or more, as opposed to $15 to $20 for a normal drug test.
At that cost, testing at Rock Bridge or Hickman would get expensive quickly. With approximately 650 athletes, Hickman’s testing costs would total $65,000, —more than half the school’s $115,000 athletic budget.
At Rock Bridge, the numbers are only slightly less severe. Testing for about 400 athletes at $100 a pop would cost $40,000, or nearly one-third of the $121,000 annual athletic budget.
Cost is one of the hurdles preventing steroid testing from entering the high school landscape, Riddle said, especially at a school as small as South Callaway.
“If it were feasible, yes (I’d like to test), but I don’t think it is at this time,” he said.
Binggeli said that though Missouri high schools haven’t done much to actively prevent steroid use because of legal constraints, things may change in the future
“It’s still just such a new area at this level,” he said. “It’s kind of new to the high school area. I’m sure it will become more and more prevalent. Time will tell.”
Any high school athletes on steroids who make it to college without being tested, however, could be in for a rude awakening.
Some athletes at MU, for instance, are subject to three levels of testing every year: drug testing from the university and both steroid and drug testing from the Big 12 Conference and the NCAA.
Sharp said athletes in all of MU’s 20 sports are given a drug test as part of their physical examinations at the beginning of the school year and then are randomly tested throughout the year.
“Every single student athlete is tested at least once during the year,” he said.
The Big 12 also comes in at least once each year, Sharp said, and randomly selects 30 student-athletes to test for drugs, including steroids. The NCAA also tests athletes for steroids. In the past, the NCAA has targeted football and track and field athletes with these tests, but this year, it switched to football and baseball.
“I think the reason behind that is with the scandal in Major League Baseball, the NCAA decided to test that particular sport,” Sharp said.
Sharp said MU has never had an athlete punished for using of performance-enhancing drugs.
Missouri baseball coach Tim Jamieson said he hasn’t seen a single player, his own or an opponent, in his 11-year collegiate coaching career that was a definite steroid user.
“It’s never been an issue with anybody I’ve ever coached,” he said. “I think you can tell if someone’s starting to do things like that.”
Jamieson said his players are tested “throughout the year, from fall to spring.”
Players don’t mind the tests, Sharp said, because the athletic department makes sure the athletes know what’s coming. Sharp sends a letter every summer to remind them of the testing policy.
“Some people think drug testing is an infringement on rights, but not our student-athletes,” Sharp said.
Some athletes are happy for the tests because it could keep opponents from using.
“They can hammer people, because I’m definitely not going to take it,” MU outfielder James Boone said, “so I at least want them out of the game, or where they can’t take it. It would benefit me.”
Missouri isn’t the only school testing athletes. At Texas, Garrido – a 36-year college coaching veteran - takes a hard stance on steroids.
“Our players have been through random testing…,” he said. “I do think there should be steroid testing, because it is harmful to the athlete.”