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.
"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.