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High Schoolers' Supplement Use Is A Growing Concern

Athletes' Quest for Extra Edge Leads to Wide Use of Products

By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page D01

When two players on the Eleanor Roosevelt boys' basketball team asked their coach to provide them with a drink containing the muscle-building supplement creatine before a playoff game last year, it did not seem like a big deal. No rules were broken, the label gave no reason to believe the drink could be harmful and the players were the ones requesting it.

Afterward, one of the Raiders' top players was taken to the emergency room suffering from nausea and other symptoms that his family said were caused by the creatine drink. His mother filed a lawsuit, alleging that Coach Glenn Farello and the Prince George's County School Board acted with negligence and charging them with misconduct.

The recent steroid hearings have drawn attention to performance-enhancing drugs by high school athletes, but Forestville's Wayne Moten and his dad, Wayne Smith, say that supplements are safe. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)

The NCAA's Approach

While there are few rules regarding supplements in high school sports, the NCAA prohibits member schools from distributing many over-the-counter supplements, including creatine.

The NCAA allows schools to distribute supplements that fit into one of four categories -- Gatorade-type drinks, energy bars, carbohydrate boosters or vitamins and minerals. Schools can only distribute products classified as non-muscle-building, meaning that they get at least 70 percent of their calories from sources other than protein.

Colleges have far fewer rules regarding consumption, meaning athletes can purchase and take most supplements on their own. The NCAA has a separate list of banned items that it monitors via its drug-testing programs.

-- Josh Barr

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The suit is still pending, but Eleanor Roosevelt Principal Sylvester Conyers in January suspended Farello, a former All-Met Coach of the Year, for the season's final six weeks, saying he had exercised poor judgment. The county also is moving toward adding nutritional supplements to a list of items school employees are prohibited from giving to students.

The publicity surrounding last week's congressional hearing about steroids and baseball has helped to raise public awareness of the dangers of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Two parents of high school athletes told the House Government Reform Committee that they believed their sons' suicides resulted from steroid use.

Even more widespread among high school athletes, however, is the use of over-the-counter supplements, such as creatine, to help improve performance. With few, if any, rules regarding supplement distribution or consumption, coaches and athletes say supplements are growing in popularity.

"Everybody is taking them nowadays," said Wayne Smith, whose son, Wayne Moten, is a junior who played on the Forestville High School football team last fall. "It's a big competition. Everybody wants to get bigger and everybody wants to get faster. . . . It's not like it's the 1960s and you go into the back of a room and somebody shoots something in you. This is over the counter. It's basically a healthy milkshake and puts weight on you if you work out."

Smith said his son recently began taking Met-Rx's protein powder to help gain weight. "If I thought there were problems with the liver or breast enlargement or anything that comes along with the illegal stuff, I wouldn't let him take it," he said. "I don't see a problem."

Defining what constitutes a supplement can be difficult. Typically, supplements combine vitamins, minerals and other substances and are taken as a pill or as a drink. Their manufacturers claim they boost energy and enhance performance. The supplement creatine, for instance, is an amino acid that helps build muscle mass.

The medical community has not formed a consensus on the use of supplements, although in recent years some have been banned after being linked to medical problems. One of the most prominent cases was that of ephedra, a weight-loss product that the Food and Drug Administration banned after it was tied to the 2003 death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Another supplement, androstenedione, was popularized by Mark McGwire during the 1998 season when he hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals. Congress last year prohibited the over-the-counter sale of andro and other steroid precursors.

People affiliated with supplement manufacturers believe supplements are safe, provided consumers follow instructions. The FDA classifies supplements as a food, meaning manufacturers are required only to provide the agency with information on why their products are reasonably expected to be safe.

The American Medical Association, however, has been calling for stricter regulation on supplements for the past five years, arguing that they should be treated with the same scrutiny as prescription drugs.

"Because existing law treats dietary supplements as foods, consumers think they are safe," AMA trustee Ron Davis said in a statement issued after he testified before a Senate subcommittee in June. "Many consumers believe these products have been approved by the government, when in fact they have not."

Increasingly, the consumers being targeted by supplements companies are young athletes.

General Nutrition Centers Inc., commonly found in malls and shopping centers, is the best-known retail outlet for supplements. According to a 2002 survey of high school and college coaches conducted for GNC, 92 percent of those responding said they believe athletes are turning to supplements more than ever to try to enhance their bodies. Eighty-seven percent of the coaches said supplements are safe and 43 percent recommend the products to their athletes.

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