New Jersey School Testing: Steroids Not the Problem?

New Jersey Herald sports writer Stefan Bondy’s recent commentary challenges the new school steroid testing program announced by Gov. Richard J. Codey.

Commentary: Steroids aren’t the problem
Sunday, January 8, 2006
By Stefan Bondy
New Jersey Herald Sports Writer

It was one quick, executive action that attracted little public scrutiny. But New Jersey set a startling precedent by approving random steroid testing for high school athletes next year. At first glance, it’s a move that appears beneficial. Juiced players are identified, and nobody gains an unfair competitive edge. The program’s founders, Gov. Richard J. Codey and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, come off as heroes.

But state-funded testing for steroids – and only steroids – sends out at least three false messages to athletes and non-athletes:
1. Steroids are the biggest drug problem in schools.
2. Student-athletes are the biggest drug users.
3. Fair athletic competition is more important than classroom success.

Some school officials, including Walkill Valley Athletic Director Mike Van Zile, disagree with testing only athletes. As of now, they will be forced to accept the terms of this new ruling. During the 2006-07 school year, any athlete competing in NJSIAA championship events is subject to random tests. Refuse, and you don’t play.

New Jersey is the first state to implement such a system.

“About 35 percent of the kids at Wallkill Valley compete in sports and extracurricular activities,” Van Zile said. “What about the other 65 percent?

“I’m concerned that athletes are always the kids that seem to get singled out.”

According to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 70 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol the previous year. Thirty-four percent smoked marijuana. Only 2.5 percent used steroids. That ranks behind tranquilizer, sedative, hallucinogen, cocaine and inhalant users.

But while Tom the football player is deterred by the state from taking a steroid he probably wouldn’t have, Jack the band leader is flunking math because he gets high before class.

“Are steroids a problem in high school? Yes, but on a smaller scale,” Van Zile said. “I think different kinds of drug use is more of a problem in most schools.”

So why is the state only testing athletes for steroids? “We have two reasons for getting involved,” NJSIAA assistant director Bob Baly said. “One is for the safety and health of the athlete. The other is to even the playing field.”

That’s a fine priority for an athletic governing body to adopt, but not one for the state to address. If the NJSIAA is so concerned about an athlete’s well-being, it should fund the necessary testing for steroids. Let the government worry about educating.

The NJSIAA certainly has the money. According to a Bergen Record article published last July, the NJSIAA’s six full-time employees were earning a combined salary of $616,255. The non-profit organization also had an estimated $2.5 million surplus. But Baly said the first round of testing is simply a trial period. Neither the testing method nor the repercussions for potential positive results were determined. The price for next year’s testing is a modest $50,000.

Still, the mixed message can be harmful. The action by Gov. Codey – spurred, no doubt, by the circus surrounding steroids and major league baseball – is acting both prematurely and unfairly. Performance-enhancing drugs have become a bigger problem in recent years. They’re just not the biggest problem.

Stefan Bondy can be reached at sbondy@njherald.com or (973) 383-1500 ext. 249.