By MORGAN LEE
Over the past decade, steroid use has become a hot-button issue in almost every facet of sports.
Baseball has seen its name tainted by performance-enhancing drugs. With each Olympics, fans grow more accustomed to seeing winners stripped of their medals after a positive test. And no Tour de France is complete without a major doping bust.
But steroid use stretches beyond professional sports, and it now appears that even the high school game is no longer safe from suspicion.
Media outlets throughout the nation have taken on the subject of steroids in high school after prep athletes from California, Arizona, Texas and Connecticut were recently caught using performance-enhancing drugs. And with the emphasis on prep players getting bigger, faster and stronger, the lure of a shortcut to high performance has proven too strong for numerous athletes.
Yet while coaches and administrators around Northeast Georgia say they haven't experienced the problem of steroids firsthand, it is an issue they admit they are wary of.
"We're very interested and cognizant of it," said Gordon Higgins, spokesman for Hall County schools. "We certainly encourage all of our coaches to talk to their players about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs."
A national issue
The numbers are scary.
According to surveys and medical studies from sources such as the University of Michigan, Harvard, the Centers for Disease Control, and Merck, somewhere between 2.5-11 percent of high school aged boys have taken or are taking steroids.
In 2003, the CDC estimated that 300,000 high school students took steroids without a prescription. It also reported that steroid use in high school students more than doubled between 1991 and 2003.
Numbers like those -- along with incidents like one in Plano, Texas, where Taylor Hooton, a student athlete at West Plano Senior High, committed suicide in 2003, many believed connected to his use of steroids -- have gotten the attention of school systems and even state legislatures.
Of the 10 states with the highest rates of student participation in high school athletics, each either has a statute or has considered one within the past year aimed at discouraging steroid use among high school athletes.
Georgia currently has no law on its books to control prep steroid use.
In 2005, six states (Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia) passed measures concerning prep steroid use. The statutes range from harsher penalties for athletes who are caught using steroids, to harsher penalties for those caught selling steroids. Virginia carries the toughest sanctions, suspending high school athletes who have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs for two years.
New Jersey will become the first state to enact state-wide testing for steroids when it begins the 2006-07 school year. The law, which passed in June, will randomly test players on high school teams that qualify for state tournaments.
In Texas, players are required to make a drug-free pledge and take an educational program on the dangers of steroid use.
In Hall County schools, players are tested for recreational drugs, such as amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, opiates and pain killers. But there are no tests for steroids yet.
"The problem right now is that steroid testing is cost prohibitive," Higgins said. "It costs $25 for a regular drug test. Steroid tests will cost us at least $200 per test."
Cost is also an issue for Gainesville City Schools, which currently doesn't test its athletes.
"Right now, we just can't afford (testing) as a school system," Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Ballowe said. "I'm personally for it, because it's better not to give a kid an excuse to do wrong.
"I'd really like to see (drug testing) become mandated with state standards."
With no state statutes, and the sharp costs of steroid testing, many school systems believe education is the best way to keep players clean.
An ounce of prevention
In many cases in Northeast Georgia, coaches and teachers are the first line of defense in the battle to keep steroids out of prep athletics.
Gainesville football coach Bruce Miller says that means keeping close tabs on players and letting them know just how dangerous steroids are.
"One thing you've got to do is talk about it; don't pretend it's going away," said Miller, who says he's had no experiences with steroids at Gainesville but is always on the lookout. "You've got to educate."
That means showing kids the right way to compete, and, when possible, showing them the wrong way, too.
"You want to give the players examples of pro athletes who have done things the right way," Miller said. "Also, when you can, you bring speakers in who have done things the wrong way, so that they can see firsthand what can happen."
Steroid use causes long-lasting and potentially devastating effects in its users, including, shrinkage of the testicles and impotence in males. In females, steroid use can cause shrinkage of the breasts, increase in facial hair, deepened voice and menstrual problems.
Users of both sexes can experience an increase in acne, wild mood swings often known as "roid rage," depression, paranoia and hallucinations.
Even so, there are athletes at every level willing to risk their health in order to gain any edge on the playing field.
"I call this generation the microwave generation," said Miller. "They want results now and a lot of times, they're looking for a quick fix. As a coach, you have to make sure they know that's not the right, or safe, thing to do. We definitely do that at Gainesville."
Riverside Military Academy football coach Doug Dixon agreed.
"It's good that (steroid use in athletes) has come to the forefront so that we can learn and understand the detriments it can do to you," said Dixon. "You've got to educate your players. Whether it's good or bad, they've got to know what's going on."
Dixon says all of Riverside's athletes are educated not just on the dangers of steroids, but on everything from nutritional supplements to proper diet.
"We talk to all of our kids involved in our weight program about nutrition and all the details about weight lifting and what it does to the body," Dixon said. "We also talk to them about steroids and even nutritional supplements; try to educate them.
"If one young man is doing (steroids), it's a problem."
Matt Stowers, Chestatee High's strength and conditioning coordinator, also believes that education is a reason he hasn't seen any cases of steroid abuse.
"We tell the kids about the long-term effects, and we talk to them about steroids in health classes," said Stowers, who teaches health at Chestatee. "I don't think it's a problem. I've never seen any cases."
Neither has Buford High athletics director and longtime football coach Dexter Wood, who says he depends on assistant coaches to help keep tabs on players and identify any at-risk students.
"We are definitely wise enough to know it's out there," Wood said. "Even some of the nutritional supplements like creatine are alarming. I really lean on our athletic trainer and (football coach) Jess Simpson to keep track of the kids.
"And maybe I was too trusting, but I just haven't had many cases where I've been suspicious of it."
Recent North Hall graduate and star football and baseball player Brandon Garcia says his coaches kept him well informed of the dangers of steroids.
"(Football) coach (Bob) Christmas and (baseball) coach (David) Dyer always did a good job of making sure we knew the dangers of steroids, and we knew as players there were severe consequences for getting caught," Garcia said. "I don't know of anyone that was using steroids, but you always hear the rumors."
So how do coaches, teachers and administrators ensure that they are up on the latest issues with steroids?
"A lot of it simply is the sharing of relevant knowledge," Dr. Ballowe said.
Just like trading game film, coaches say they are able to keep up with new trends by keeping open dialogues among themselves. Coaches also attend seminars, including GHSA sanctioned events, and talk to local doctors and trainers.
"I have talked to some doctors, and 'Bigger, Faster, Stronger' (a weight training program) circulates tapes about it (steroid abuse)." Miller said.
"We're staying in tune with the issue," West Hall athletics director Dr. Greg Williams said. "Our coaches go to all the clinics, and they talk to their players about it. It's also brought up in drug education classes."
It's a different world than the one in which Miller saw in the early 1980s, when coaches knew little about what to look for or how to spot potential problems.
"I was an assistant on some football teams in the early 80s where, now that I know the signs of it, it certainly seems suspicious," Miller said.
As much as knowledge of performance-enhancing drugs has progressed in the past two decades, high school steroid issues will continue to evolve and change, much as it has in professional sports.
"If we had an epidemic, I'd look into (steroid testing)," Dr. Williams said. "We have no evidence of it here. I hope it stays that way, but there's always a chance that it could change.
"I'm up for anything that will help our kids," East Hall High football coach Tim Marchman said.
As coaches, Miller says that should be the top priority.
"Any coach that would sacrifice a kid's future for the sake of winning a game by letting an athlete get on steroids doesn't belong in high school coaching," Miller said.
(Times sports reporter Bill Murphy contributed to this report.)
By MORGAN LEE