Drug Policy

Don't Blame Barry

Will regulating the pros wash steroids out of high school?


Sports talk radio is fond of throwing out the argument that steroid use among pro athletes translates into use among the high school athletes who emulate them. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was so convinced of the simple, causal connection that he wrote it into his committee's steroid testing bill, The Clean Sports Act of 2005, and then cited it as the primary motivation behind the law.

Wrote Waxman:

"There is an absolute correlation between the culture of steroids in the major league clubhouse and the culture of steroids in high school gyms. If we can remove steroids from the clubhouse, we will fix the problems in school locker rooms."

Waxman's bill may still be floating around Capitol Hill, but baseball isn't waiting around. In response to the steroid hearings and the threat of regulation, last year Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to investigate the sport. In June, more than a year after its formation, Mitchell's team announced its first confirmed interview with an active player, the hapless and hobbled Yankee designated hitter, Jason Giambi.

Waxman likes to grandstand, and employing the tried and true "for the children" argument rarely backfires. But is he right? Is there an "absolute correlation" between pro and teen steroid use?

Data on steroid use in teens is ambiguous, but can give some indication of its prevalence in teen populations. There are two large-scale studies that track drug use, including steroids, in teens nationally: the Monitoring the Future study conducted by the University of Michigan, and a study run by the CDC called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The YRBS notes higher incidences of steroid use among different teen populations across the board (a discrepancy which may have something to do with the wording on the questionnaire), but the YRBS and the MTF studies each found rising incidences of steroid use among teens in the 90's, then relatively constant rates from the late 90's through 2005. The MTF actually finds slight decreases, in year-to-year lifetime and annual use over this period, while the YRBS finds a slight rise through 2003, with a subsequent dropoff.

Steroids have been something of an afterthought in the NFL, and, at least to date, not much of an issue in pro hockey and basketball. But baseball fans might recognize these ranges of dates. Alleged juicers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire chased each other past the single-season home run record in 1998, when steroid use hit a recent peak, but media interest in steroids at the time was just a blip. The press did stumble upon a container of androstenedione—then a legal supplement—in McGuire's open locker. That raised some eyebrows, but the media deluge wouldn't come until after 2001, when Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record again, and 2002, when former MVP Ken Caminiti admitted to steroid use. Jose Canseco's pro-steroid tell-all, Juiced, arrived in 2005, and Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams published their Balco/Bonds expose, Game of Shadows, in 2006.

So how does all this timeline of exposed and speculated upon steroid use relate to teenage juicers? Steroid hysterics in Congress would say it goes something like this: The press reports on pros using steroids; teens learn about steroids in the pros, but the coverage is negative; Congress sends kids a clear signal that steroids won't be tolerated in the pros; and what would have been a rising tide of steroid users is abated.

But then again, it could go like this: The media exposes the use of steroids in the pros; thanks to the coverage, more kids try steroids than would do so otherwise; and a downward turn in teen steroid use instead trends up to flat. Maybe both scenarios influence use and cancel each other out. Maybe neither factor in at all. It's fun to play speculative games, but at the end of the day, despite Waxman's assertions, there's no proven correlation.

While the MTF and the YRBS have been helpful in tracking steroid use in teens over time, very few studies have attempted to identify the factors that contribute to steroid use. One recent study that has finds, not surprisingly, that teenage steroid use has more to do with incentives than with hero worship.

The study, Steroid Use Among Adolescents: Longitudinal Findings From Project EAT (Pediatrics, Vol. 119 No. 3 March 2007, pp. 476-486), tracked middle and high school students in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. It's one of the few that tracked steroid use in a set population of teens over a set period of time—in this case, a five-year period. The study is only a preliminary attempt to understand the factors behind teen steroid use, but it does reinforce common sense thinking on this subject: Kids who use steroids have body image concerns (they are kids who consider themselves too scrawny or heavy); participate in power sports like football; or are involved in sports that demand precise control over body weight, such as ballet or wrestling.

In other words, kids may undervalue long term risk and overvalue short term gain, but they aren't morons. Those who use steroids seem to care most about what steroids can do for them, not about emulating the figures on baseball cards. Steroid use in teen populations may indeed be something to be concerned about, but there is no reason to think that regulating the pros will help.

Aaron Steinberg is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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  1. Yeah, I saw the standing ovation Bonds got in San Diego on Saturday–I was at the game on Sunday, damn it–and I’m attributing some of that to the big biotech base in San Diego.

    Biotech is to San Diego what aviation was to Seattle.

    …but if those family folks in San Diego can come around, the rest of America will too. Someday people will look back at the controversy and wonder what it was all about. It just takes time.

    Talking to other Padre fans in the stands yesterday, the idea was thrown out that because steroids don’t involve anything like dogs fighting to the death (not directly anyway), that it just doesn’t seem like a big deal right now. …especially with Milton Bradley and Chris Young out on the DL.

    Yeah, people will probably come to accept steroids in time. …dog fighting, maybe not.

  2. Oh, and 755 is an important stat, but I think Giants fans should be thinking about another stat…

    …14 games back! Ha ah ha ha!

  3. The fact that ESPN flogs the “for the children” argument while simultaneously doing more to increase steroid use by children infuriates me. If you don’t want kids taking steroids, stop using trying to grow the youth sports culture to make money. Airing college sports, nationally ranking fifth graders, putting athletic success on a pedestal above all else–all perfectly moral actions, but ones that are far more likely to make younger and younger children resort to (completely rational!) steroid use.

    The only thing that will keep kids off PED’s is to take the money and attention off of youth sports, which is impossible because the people we’re gonna watch and pay millions to for adult athletics have to come from somewhere. It’s a brave new world, we just live in it

  4. Jack,
    You want to replace the war on drugs with a new war on youth sports?
    Is this another version of Reefer Madness?

  5. There’s a promotion on ESPN for a little league team to win the chance to play on TV.They won’t be happy till their making money on tee ball.

  6. $teroid$

  7. I’m probably gonna catch some flack for saying this, but there is some (small) merit to the idea that if we control drug use in profesional sports, it will cut down on teen PEDs useage.

    As Jack pointed out, it’s about money and attention: the parents and the kids both want it, especially those high-dollar pro careers. If athletes, am and pro, seriously feared the consequences of getting caught using such drugs, they wouldn’t use them.

    Is there seriously an attitude among kids of “I’m gonna use steroids because [insert pro here] uses them, and I want to be cool like him?” Doubtful. But there very may well be a sense of “Hey, so-and-so uses steroids, gets away with it, and banks serious money. Why shouldn’t I?”

  8. Because sports are a privaledge and not a rite, I would argue that mandatory drug testing for steroids is one of the few things that will actually save amature sports. Young kids do look up to pro athleats, but the real influence on them to take steroids is the coach suggesting and providing the kids with such drugs.

  9. Correlation by itself means nothing. You need a causal link to make any substantive claims.

  10. But not politically successful claims…

  11. No matter what the technology is – history teaches us that there is no way it can be throttled. Japan tried to keep out the gun in the 17th century – to ultimately lose. Nuclear weapons proliferate the planet, GMO crops, processed foods, etc., etc. There are many examples of people trying to regulate or control new ideas, only to be swept aside by the pressure for change. The drive to accept technologies that give people an edge is simply too irresistable – especialy when there is something important at stake! NASCAR fights with that all the time!

    To think that we can control the use of drugs in sport is naive at best. History teaches us that. Manage – maybe. Eliminate? Forget it. The lust for fame and fortune, especially in our narcissistic society, is simply too powerful!

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