New Jersey offers early look at steroid testing in high schools

Updated: May 30, 2007, 6:04 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

They were tired and hungry and had just lost in the state semifinals. Then 12 backups on the Union High School football team were dispatched to the locker room to submit urine samples and be part of history last fall.

This is a snippet of life in New Jersey, which became the first state to implement mandatory steroid testing for high school athletes. It was groundbreaking, requiring 500 high school athletes to submit to steroid testing during the school year.

It is a syringe in a haystack compared with what Texas is about to undertake.

The Texas Legislature approved a bill this week for mandatory random testing, which could affect as many as 25,000 high school athletes in the coming school year. If Gov. Rick Perry approves, it would be the largest high school steroid testing plan in the country.

Rick Perry
AP Photo/Harry CabluckAll that stands between high school athletes and steroid testing in Texas is a signature from Gov. Rick Perry.
Bill Parsons, the Union High athletic director in New Jersey whose stomach was rumbling during the midnight post-drug-test bus ride home, can't imagine how Texas will pull it off. His kids had to wait for a 50-mile bus ride home while their teammates were being tested. In a sprawling state such as Texas, where road games might take a team hundreds of miles away, they might want to consider a different plan.

"I'm all for the testing," Parsons said. "I think it should be done because it stops kids from using. We were the lab rats here, and there are some things that have to be taken care of.

"They should choose some schools closer together and don't do it at night. We also suggested they do it prior to a game. But a kid could still take something."

Decision-makers in Texas have consulted New Jersey about its steroids plan, but the scope, really, is incomparable.

In Texas, where more than 700,000 students compete, the state will spend $3 million a year for testing. The work has just begun, and the state has yet to complete many of the details, such as who will conduct the tests, where they will be sent and how the athletes will be picked. Mark Cousins, athletic coordinator for the Texas University Interscholastic League, said roughly 120 of the state's 1,300 schools currently conduct drug testing.

"It's going to be an interesting couple of months, let's put it that way," Cousins said. "A tremendous amount of work in a short amount of time."

In New Jersey, where about 280,000 students compete, the state spent $100,000 in its first year and the tests were conducted only during state tournaments and playoffs.

The first batch included 150 random names in the fall season, and all those tests came back clean. Bob Baly, an assistant director with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, declined to give the results of the winter and spring tests because they are still pending.

"Some people say we should do more; some say we should do less," Baly said. "There are critics on both sides.

Urine Samples
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesUrine samples such as these at UCLA's drug-testing lab might have come from high school athletes in New Jersey.
"We didn't do it because we wanted to [be first]. We didn't do it because we saw an overabundance of youngsters taking steroids. What frightened us is that when we did our anecdotal studies of the problem, we heard almost every athlete knew where to get them."

The Union football team's 12 subjects were what Parsons called "sub-varsity," 12 random jersey numbers drawn from a hat. Their urine samples were submitted and labeled by bar codes. New Jersey conducts its testing through Drug Free Sport, then ships the tests to the World Anti-Doping Association lab at UCLA.

In the first year, there were occasional complications. A boy from a lacrosse team in New Jersey this past weekend decided to hydrate himself before a second-round playoff game in the heat. He drank so much water that his specimen was too diluted to get a reading. So he jogged and did pushups -- after a game -- and finally was able to give a sample about two hours later.

The thinking behind New Jersey's postgame tests is that they don't want to rattle an athlete before one of the biggest games or matches of his career.

At Don Bosco High this winter, four wrestlers submitted samples after their state tournament matches. One of them was a 135-pound senior.

"I think it's a deterrent," Don Bosco coach Nunzio Campanile said. "But I also think they should spell out the consequences better, give it a little more teeth. I don't think the consequences are stiff enough. If a senior tests positive, what are you going to do with them?"

Baly said one of the biggest preventive steps in New Jersey happens before the season, when student-athletes sign consent forms saying they will subject themselves to random testing. A parent also is required to sign the form.

Among the banned substances are stimulants, anabolic agents, diuretics and peptide hormones. If an athlete tests positive, he or she is suspended for a year.

"We're not here to try and catch some youngster and punish him terribly," Baly said. "We're here to say, 'Don't do it, don't start it.'"

A handful of coaches and school officials from New Jersey said they weren't worried about their athletes testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. They know their kids and know the symptoms.

"Texas is another case," Parsons said. "It's a big-business football state. People travel 300, 400 miles to see a game. It's Friday night lights, and coaching is a profession out there, a full-time job."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.