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Straight Talk Is the Best Deterrent to Steroid Use

By Preston Williams
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Florida chose not to fund its steroid-testing program for high school athletes this school year after snagging only one violator among the 600 subjects who were randomly tested last year -- not much muscle for a $100,000 flex. New Jersey got the same result, one violator. Texas tested more than 10,000 students and nabbed two. The price tag for two dirty urine samples? $3 million.

With those swing-and-miss results and tight budgetary times, it's hard to imagine states continuing to spend money on testing high school athletes for steroids (although Illinois is going to take a shot this school year).

Maryland, Virginia and the District don't test high school students for steroids.

So the best way, financially and otherwise, to ward off steroid use among teen athletes is probably through parents and coaches -- and the old-fashioned approach that Arlington County physical education teacher Rocky Belk and Arlington physician Ben Pearl took last week.

They met with about 60 high school students from Sheila Napala's physical therapy and sports medicine classes at the Arlington Career Center to discuss steroids and the 2008 documentary the students had watched, "Bigger Stronger Faster*."

"We heard a lot about Barry Bonds and baseball players through [the congressional hearings], but we found that [steroid use] really has to do with wanting to be somebody special," Pearl said of his research. "A lot of us are trying to get somewhere because we're not happy with ourselves. We're not comfortable in our own skin, being what we are."

When Pearl asked how many students had used steroids or would admit to using them, no hands went up. But if the three athletes whom Varsity spoke to after the presentation are any indication, steroids are a prevalent topic.

Yorktown senior Kevin Cooper, a cornerback and special teamer, said he has thought about taking steroids, often while scraping his 5-foot-7, 145-pound frame off the football field. At the same time, he said, he considers steroids "stupid," a "last resort" and tantamount to cheating.

"I'm one of the small kids who goes to the weight room but is still small and scrawny," said Cooper, who also runs indoor track and plays lacrosse. "I've been in situations where I've been leveled by big guys . . . who got the football gene better than what I did. At times I've thought, 'Man, what if I was bigger and stronger and taller?' I've always wondered how better I would be of an athlete."

When Pearl asked whether any of the students had taken other performance enhancers, several arms went up. Wakefield senior defensive end Curtis Smith said that he had used creatine supplements, over-the-counter products known for building muscle, between his freshman and sophomore years. "I wanted to become bigger for football and wrestling," he said.

The 5-10, 160-pound Smith later said in an interview that a relative who had used steroids steered him away from them and also from more widely accepted (but often unregulated) supplements.

Washington-Lee junior volleyball player Elizabeth Delery said that before a freshman match two years ago, an opposing coach, questioning Delery's 5-foot-11 frame, told an official something along the lines of: She's not a ninth-grader. There's no way she can be on this team. She's on steroids.

"I can't really help it if my parents are tall," Delery said. "To have a world where people accuse you because they don't really know if you're doing it or not . . . when some of us are working really hard to win and we're being labeled as cheating."

Steroid use among males can cause liver damage, testicle shrinkage, reduced sperm count, impotence, baldness, urination difficulties, breast development, an enlarged prostate and other problems. Girls who use steroids can grow facial hair or lose hair and experience disrupted menstrual cycles, altered genitals or deepened voices.

The expensive testing programs are no doubt useful as a deterrent, but some detect only certain steroids. And proportionally, few athletes are tested, making it a risk that some young athletes might consider taking. Steroids, and tips to avoid detection of their use, are readily available on the Internet. And despite the potential drawbacks, steroids work, although their starry-eyed users might be unhealthily focused on 10 Friday nights -- or four years of free college -- than 60 more years of good health.

The presentation from Pearl, a McLean High graduate, and Belk, who attended the now-closed Fort Hunt High in Alexandria and played at the University of Miami and for the Cleveland Browns, seemed to make an impression on the students, who asked pointed and smart questions.

That sort of frank give-and-take, more than the exercise of administering pricey tests whose merits are spotty, is probably the best way to address teen steroid use.

If you want to teach students about their bodies, take it to the student body.

"This needs to be talked about," said Belk, a former football coach at Washington-Lee and Coolidge. "This is not taboo."

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com.

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