19 April 2013
To PIAA Board of Directors,
As you should be well aware, there is a growing problem in the American culture of sports. Competition is a part of human nature. People have a built-in desire to be the best they can be, especially when they excel in a certain field. This mindset is perhaps most prevalent in the world of sports, where athletes must train and push themselves to their physical limits to compete at the highest possible level. As athletes’ continue to set new standards of excellence, so has the technology to achieve these feats. With the proverbial “bar” being set higher and higher, more and more athletes are resorting to drug treatments as a means of improving their physical capabilities. It’s no longer just in the professional levels, as steroids and other supplements have been found in colleges and even high schools nationwide. Drug supplements have no place in competitive sports, and action must be taken to eradicate them, starting from the bottom.
I’m not talking about the street drugs that have been causing protests and drug wars such as marijuana, cocaine, tobacco, or ecstasy. The drugs that have infiltrated scholastic athletic programs include anabolic steroids, creatine, human growth hormones, and testosterone supplements. These substances are designed not only to allow the body to recover more efficiently after a workout, but to allow the users to pack on levels of muscle that would not be achievable by the means of simple protein shakes. Artificial supplements are proven to be effective, allowing athletes who use them to develop muscle over twice as quickly as those who do not. As we all know, muscle mass can provide huge advantages in sports, giving athletes improved strength, speed, agility, and drive. But is the use of performance-enhancing drugs giving these athletes an unfair advantage?
Performance-enhancing drug use is by no means a new issue in sports. By now everyone with any connection to the media has heard the names that have been marred by connection to performance-enhancing drugs: baseball greats Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, Tour De France winners Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis, and Olympic sprinter Marion Jones. Obviously there are many more names, but these athletes are among the most successful, decorated champions to be linked to drug use. For a while, only the professional, top-level athletes resorted to artificial supplements for training, but the problem is becoming increasingly more common in high schools across the nation. In June 2012, nine students in Texas high schools tested positive for steroids. In 2011, the valedictorian and top wrestler of my alma mater, East Stroudsburg North High School, tested positive for both anabolic steroids and creatine. The problem is continuing to grow, and steps must be taken to halt and eventually reverse this growth.
In order to tackle this growing issue, we must first understand why the more and more student athletes are turning to performance-enhancing drugs. As I stated previously, sports are the epitome of human competition. They provide students not only with a physical escape from intellectual studies, but the chance to outperform their peers and win. However, some parents and students take competition very seriously, instilling a “win at all costs” attitude in athletes. I know I was raised this way while I learned to play ice hockey. This mindset is the reason I have developed a high tolerance to pain and desire to win. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the desire to win and unhappiness with personal capabilities will turn some athletes to drugs like steroids to improve their abilities. Society may be to blame for the culture today’s children are being brought up into, but that doesn’t mean those who regulate the sports cannot intervene to prevent the problem from growing.
There are already several methods of drug testing that have been put into place all across the United States, and all of them have their advantages and disadvantages. The most popular, widely-used form of drug screening is random drug testing. Like the name implies, random drug testing is simply testing any athlete at any time without giving the athlete prior warning. The test is beneficial because without prior warning, athletes who do use performance-enhancing drugs are more likely to be caught in the act. The test is also non-biased, meaning that if you are an athlete, you are eligible for random drug testing. My high school had permission slips for students to play sports, one of which was a letter of consent for random drug testing, so if you didn’t agree to be eligible for the testing, you were not allowed to play. Random drug testing has proven to be effective in the past. According to a 2008 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in which 1337 school districts across the country were tested in all offered extracurricular sports, 14 percent of the schools yielded positive test results. That is one hundred and eighty seven school districts that had at least one student using performance enhancing drugs. Imagine the results if random drug testing was made mandatory several times throughout the sports seasons.
Timing is crucial for random drug testing to be effective. Depending on the substance, steroids can remain in the body anywhere from a week to eighteen months, making detecting drug use a kind of gamble. This is why some schools institute the reasonable suspicion policy. Similar to the right used by police officers to make arrests, some schools districts maintain the right to test students they feel may be cheating. This option does save school boards money by only testing a limited number of athletes. However, some find it offensive to discriminate against the athletes who perform well by labeling them as cheaters. I remember in high school there was a linebacker on a rival team who could literally bench press over 350 pounds and racked up over seven tackles every game. Does this mean he is using performance-enhancing drugs? Possibly, but we can’t know unless we test these athletes. High school sports are competitive, but they are also meant to be developmental for students. Every needs to have a fair chance at being successful, and biology alone creates enough division.
Aside from picking out the proverbial bad apples in the bunch, there is an alternative route to prevent drug use: education. Schools across the country have instituted classes dedicated to teaching students about the dangers of smoking, unprotected sex, driving and poor diet, so why not performance enhancing drugs? The health risks are no secret. For adolescents, stunted growth, increased risk of breast and prostate cancers, male characteristic development in girls, and infertility are all risks associated with steroid use. Also, it is rare that athletes will take the “recommended” dosage of steroids, often using ten to fifty time the appropriate amount, which only multiplies the health risks. Steroids have also been linked to complications in the brain and cardiovascular system, leading to a huge risk for stroke and extreme episodes of anger, commonly known as “roid rage”. The health risks of performance-enhancing drugs are often overlooked because they have more positive attributes than most drugs, but they are just as serious. The damage is being done, and it’s time for someone to institute a change to keep our bright athletes, our future superstars, healthy and performing for a long time.
I look at the current drug policies in high schools as a parallel to the United States’ law enforcement system. Even if the laws and regulations are in place to prevent crime and drug use, laws only stop honest people. Penalties need to be utilized in high school sports just as incarceration is utilized in the legal system. There are many options to choose from, ranging from suspension, being cut from a team, the affiliated teams forfeiting games, and even imposing fines to schools. There need to be repercussions for these actions to let students know that performance-enhancing drugs will not be tolerated. If you could rob a bank, get away with the money, and maintain a spotless criminal record, wouldn’t you take the money and run? The PIAA needs to create the sense of fear with severe consequences for these actions.
I’m not a parent, so I cannot speak for them or how they feel about their children potentially using performance-enhancing drugs, but I am a former athlete. When I was in high school, I played hockey, a sport where being strong give you a big advantage. Not only can stronger players dominate on the scoreboard by rushing in unopposed, but they can injure other players very easily. One of my teammates suffered a broken ankle after being shoved to the ground by someone who appeared to be at least six feet tall and solid muscle. This doesn’t mean this particular person was using performance-enhancing drugs, but it is much easier to attain this muscle mass when using them. No parent or teammate wants to see someone hurt during a game. Steroids are increasing the aggressiveness and potential for injury in games, and it will only get worse. Do we really want to wait until a student dies on the field to institute a policy change?
No issue is ever solved by pointing fingers and placing blame. Much like legal change is impossible without the power of Congress, changes in high school sports cannot happen without the support of the highest authorities, including the PIAA. As it stands right now, the drug policies are ineffective. Technology is improving and it is becoming easier to hide drug use. I realize the PIAA is not responsible for creating a new test, but we are certainly not using all the resources that are currently available. The PIAA needs to improve the quality of screening for drugs, which in some schools is nonexistent. The professionals see performance-enhancing drugs as cheating, and have effective policies to detect them. That being said, if high schools don’t catch them, colleges and higher leagues will. This doesn’t mean it isn’t the PIAA’s responsibility. High school is a learning environment, and student-athletes need to learn to play and better themselves without artificial supplements. The sooner they can learn the aftermath of using these substances, the better off they will be in the long run. As the old saying goes, “you can’t rush perfection”.
Is there such a thing as a perfectly clean game? I don’t know the answer, but I know we are far from it and improvements can be made. Athletes everywhere push themselves to be the best that they can be to have fun and to succeed. Some take it a little too far to give themselves an edge, and they need to be weeded out to prevent injury and unfair advantages. People can protest all day, every day, but in the end, change cannot happen without legislation. We need the PIAA to step in and create mandatory drug testing policies in high schools, either be instituting classes to raise awareness, random drug testing, and imposing harsh penalties for those caught. This has gone on long enough. It’s time to create a drug-free environment in the schools and on the sports fields. Students, parents and athletes all across Pennsylvania need you to take action for a more effective era of high school athletics to begin.