WASHINGTON – Warnings to students about the dangers of steroid use should start in grade school, a panel commissioned by Congress and professional sports leagues is urging.
With school starting, millions of young athletes will be showing their stuff on football fields, tennis courts and cross country courses. It also means, a panel commissioned by Congress said Wednesday, that more must be done to make sure that stuff isn't enhanced by steroids.
Steroids can led to dramatic mood swings, heart disease and cancer. Using steroids without a doctor's prescription for medical purposes has been illegal since 1991.
"It's a malevolent problem to sports and to health," said Dr. Bertha Madras of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The Zero Tolerance panel, consisting of representatives of professional leagues, health experts and anti-steroid groups, urged in its final report that steroid education begin in grade school.
In addition, it asked professional sports leagues to find new ways to increase revenue for education efforts, such as donating a surcharge on ticket sales.
"It is imperative that everyone do their part to ensure that our children do not follow the same path as several of the most notorious athletes in U.S. sports history have taken by using steroids," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who organized the panel.
Davis has worked with Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling on the project.
An estimated 30 million children and teenagers play organized sports and there's been growing concern that young people, seeing widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among professional athletes, are turning to steroids to boost their strength.
As many as 1 million high school students have tried steroids, a threefold jump over 10 years, according to a 2003 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
Representatives of the four major sports leagues — baseball, football, basketball and hockey — listed some of their efforts to persuade young people not to imitate the steroid use that has tainted some of their biggest stars, including baseball's Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.
Josh Alkin of Major League Baseball said the league has committed more than $17 million for public service announcements and contributed $1 million to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an anti-steroid group named for a Texas high school student whose suicide was linked to his use of anabolic steroids.
The National Football League said it included anti-steroid information in its annual two-day conference with youth football coaches and league administrators and, together with the NFL Players Association, committed $500,000 into research on detection of human growth hormones.
The NBA said select players would be featured in a DVD to be distributed to thousands of high schools by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The federation's Dan Wexler showed the panel several public service announcements it is airing on steroid use, including one concluding, "It's cheating, it's illegal and it can end your life."
Davis said he was "somewhat disappointed" by the lack of player participation in the recommendations. "It's hard to believe that the leagues and players associations cannot identify professional athletes who would be willing to take time out of their schedules to discuss such an important topic with their young fans."
Ben Zelenko of the National Football League Players Association said he took exception to that criticism. He said NFL players are active in programs involving youth, parents and coaches.
Among the panel's other recommendations were that effective prevention programs should be promoted in middle and high schools as alternatives to testing if it is more affordable and more widely accepted by the community.
Davis said there was little conclusive evidence on whether recent anti-steroid campaigns have been effective in dissuading young people from experimenting with the drugs.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy said it detected some drop in the use of steroids among high school students between 2001 and 2005. It said last year that 2 percent of eighth, 10th and 12th graders reported taking steroids during their lives, down from 3.2 percent in 2001, and that those saying they had used steroids in the past month dropped from 0.9 percent to 0.6 percent.
The House Government Reform Committee that Davis chairs held dramatic hearings in March last year where baseball stars McGwire, Palmeiro and Jose Canseco testified about steroid use in their sport.
With threats from Davis and other lawmakers to legislate tougher penalties, Major League Baseball and its players last November agreed to stronger sanctions, including a 50-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a third offense.