As the camera zoomed in on his face, Mark McGwire’s eyes filled with tears.
Those same eyes that used to track fastballs and deposit them 450 feet into the outfield stands, now displayed regret, embarrassment and shame.
“I wish I had never touched steroids,” McGwire told the MLB Network’s Bob Costas during an interview Jan. 11. “It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize.”
McGwire’s admission to using steroids and Human Growth Hormone did not come as a surprise; he was just another name in a long list of professional athletes that have either admitted, been accused of, or were assumed of using performance-enhancing drugs during their careers.
Sports fans have long been aware of the prevalence of PEDs in professional athletics, and McGwire’s admission proved what everyone suspected: that baseball was filled with “cheaters” for more than a decade.
In recent years, Major League Baseball has joined the NCAA and several other professional sports leagues in cracking down on PED use through testing and suspensions. While those efforts have led to fewer professional and collegiate users, not much has been done to deter use among high school athletes, who strive to one day join the collegiate and professional ranks.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs at the high school level has become an issue because steroids can affect growth throughout puberty and can stunt development. While most athletes believe that steroids or other PEDs can help them excel in sports, research has shown that any perceived benefit is not worth the risk.
The athletes in Hall County agree.
The Times recently conducted an anonymous and random survey of 326 athletes that compete in high school sports in Hall County, and of those, only 11 (three percent) admitted to previously taking performance-enhancing drugs.
“While I’m never happy or satisfied with kids using any kind of drug in their system, I’m really pleased in the sense that they really didn’t think this is something they want to do or try,” Hall County Schools spokesman Gordon Higgins said. “I’m sure high school athletes are very impressionable and very tempted to say this could be a road for future success, but the fact that they’re not is very encouraging.”
The survey results proved Higgins’ statement to be true, as 11 percent of the respondents admitted that they have been tempted to use performance-enhancing drugs.
“Kids are curious, they want to catch the edge,” said Mark Minelli, a professor at the University of Central Michigan and expert on performance-enhancing drug use. “It’s human nature to want to improve yourself.”
If anyone would know it’s Minelli, who has been researching the issue since the 1980s. His book “Drug Abuse in Sports: A Student Course Manual” is now in its seventh edition.
Minelli’s book discusses the reasons athletes might use PEDs, why they shouldn’t, and how schools and athletic organizations can help deter the use of these types of drugs.
“I see it as a three-prong approach,” Minelli said. “There needs to be education, a policy in place, and testing.”
Tests are beneficial, but costly
Only New Jersey, Texas and Florida test high school athletes for steroid use, and while Hall County schools and Riverside Military test their athletes for drug use, adding steroids to that test is not feasible because the average cost of a steroid test is $100 per athlete.
“It’s not a fundamental or philosophical opposition,” Higgins said. “It’s financial.”
The three states that do test for PEDs get help from the state with the costs, with New Jersey allotting $50,000 to fight usage, Florida allotting $100,000 and Texas, which tests the most athletes, allotting $3 million.
The drug testing programs in those three states have proved to be a success, as only one of 430 athletes in Florida tested positive in 2008, 19 of the 45,000 athletes in Texas tested positive since Feb. 2008 and New Jersey, which tested 500 athletes from 110 schools, had zero positive tests in the 2008-09 school year.
Schools in Hall County don’t have that luxury, and while the financial burden prevents the schools from testing for PEDs, it does not mean the athletes are against it, as 59 percent of the athletes surveyed are in favor of random drug tests aimed at performance-enhancing drug use.
Riverside Military’s athletic director Scot Sloan thinks testing for PEDs would help deter use.
“As a college football player, I had to take drug tests,” said Sloan, who played football at Clemson. “From being a part of it, I know there was a certain scare factor.”
More education is needed
Scaring athletes is one way to deter PED use, but according to Minelli, the best way to stop the athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs is to teach, and continue to teach them about the negative consequences.
“As an educator, I’d rather see prevention programs in the classroom and I’d build it into a comprehensive drug course,” he said. “With comprehensive health education, you’re teaching it along the way through all the stages of their life.”
Drug prevention programs are in place at the nine area high schools, but the consequences of performance-enhancing drugs are taught only once, normally when the athlete is either in middle school or just entering high school.
According to the athletes surveyed, that’s not enough education as 53 percent stated that their school discusses performance-enhancing drug use and the consequences of using them, while 46 percent admitted that their school does not do a satisfactory job of discussing the negative aspects of PEDs. This is a cause for concern since 43 percent of the respondents claimed to know someone that has tried PEDs.
“That lets me know that we haven’t highlighted performance-enhancing drugs per se,” Gainesville City schools superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “I don’t think our drug education is seeing it as much of a danger and it hasn’t been emphasized.”
The lack of an overwhelming positive response to the schools’ drug education program also concerned Higgins.
“This is something we can and will address,” he said. “I’m confident our coaches will respond willingly.”
Apparently that’s where it all starts, as coaches are instructed to talk to their athletes about performance-enhancing drugs and be on the look out for suspected PED users.
“As an athletic director, I think it should be the coach’s job to be on the front line,” said Lakeview Academy’s Deuce Roark, who also coaches baseball at the school. “It’s our job to protect the kids, not only as coaches but as a school.”
Just having the coaches discuss PEDs might not be enough, so the school systems are ready to increase awareness in the classroom.
“We’ll definitely include it in the school curriculum and speak about performance-enhancing drugs,” Dyer said. “As far as a school system can do, that comes first: education, prevention and intervention. But the only way it can be effective is if we keep the awareness there.”
On top of that, the schools are open to adding a performance-enhancing drug awareness program that may include guest speakers who are recovering addicts, famous sports personalities or doctors who can explain exactly what happens to the body when steroids and HGH are used.
“I think that’s a possibility,” Higgins said. “Especially if we can bring in some friends from the Atlanta Falcons, because I think that sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message.”
According to Roark, that message should focus on the health issues surrounding performance-enhancing drug use.
“The best way to prevent use is to show the damage it could cause,” he said. “You need shock and awe for kids to understand the long-term effects for the short-term gain.”
The survey results conclude that the athletes in Hall County are already aware of this, as 237 of the 326 respondents stated that PEDs are not beneficial for athletes.
That fact alone restores Higgins’ belief in the athletes in the county.
“A lot of our young people today have a lot of respect for their bodies,” he said. “I am encouraged that the vast majority are saying they’ve heard about it, they’ve thought about it, but they don’t think it’s worth the risk.”