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Columnist
Drug testing preps a bitter pill to swallow
By Jeff Long | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 1/20/2008 12:37 AM

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Next year, the governing body that oversees Illinois high school sports will begin investigating what's inside the bodies of teenage athletes.

Drug testing. This is what it has come to. Like tears on a cheek, the trickle down effect from professional sports has reached the prep level. Illinois will become the fourth state (New Jersey, Texas, Florida) to screen its athletes for performance-enhancing drugs.

It's another sad commentary on the state of athletic competition in our times. High school sports, once considered an extra-curricular activity meant to enhance the educational experience to bring students and communities together, are seeing that pristine distinction continue to erode.

Even so, does the invasion have to go this far? While the IHSA has good intentions, there are better ways to achieve its noble goals than drug testing.

First of all, drug testing is tantamount to finding a hypodermic needle in a haystack. More than 300,000 preps participate in sports each year in Illinois, yet under the IHSA's plan, less than 1,000 will be tested -- and only those from teams that reach the state championship series.

What's the point? Let's say a senior quarterback juiced up on steroids and led his team to the title. He tests positive after the trophy presentation. Now what? His high school playing career is already over. So who is served, and what is gained?

And what about all the athletes who don't use performance-enhancing drugs -- the overwhelming majority -- but are subjected to these accusatory tests after their greatest moment of triumph?

Just think, after each athlete is donned with a medal around their neck and saluted as a champion, they march single-file, cup-in-hand, for the post-championship test.

"Congratulations! You're the best in the state, but…we want to make sure you're not a cheater."

There must be a better way -- and there is. Rather than cast a suspicious eye at athletes in general when it's only a select few who cheat with illegal drugs, enforcement and education must be done on a micro-level -- school by school, sport by sport, athlete by athlete.

That makes far more sense than the IHSA spending $100,000 to $150,000 per year to catch, at best, a handful of cheaters.

Education and interactive, drug prevention programs would be a much more cost-effective approach. Why not be proactive, instead of waiting until the damage is done? That puts a deterrent in place before kids get involved with drugs, not after the fact. To its credit, the IHSA says it has plans to strengthen its education program on performance-enhancing substances but hasn't offered specifics.

Greater responsibility at home would go a long way, too. As one campaign poignantly points out, good parenting is the anti-drug. Also, teachers and coaches, who develop close relationships with their student-athletes, should often able to detect changes brought on by drug use.

While steroids and human growth hormone also bulk up one's ability to be a strong denier, it's hard to mask the obvious physical changes. Those in an athlete's inner circle can't help but notice.

Case in point -- you can pretty much suspect which pro athletes have juiced, just by comparing their past performance to a sudden spike in productivity. If we can identify that from afar on TV and stat sheets, certainly coaches and teachers -- who are up close and personal with student-athletes -- will notice when one of their own might be a user.

Any coach worth his or her morals will have the fortitude to intervene. To turn a blind eye is an offense equal to that of the drug user -- and perhaps worse -- because educators must always have the students' best interests in mind, or they've failed themselves and failed the system.

Lastly, student-athletes are able to police themselves to an extent. They know what's going on. And the drug abusers know they know. To remain silent hurts both sides. Friends don't let friends take steroids. Again, if they are all better educated regarding the frightful, permanent damage that can be caused, they're more likely to intervene.

Nobody denies that steroid use exists at the high school level. But it's hard to believe that abuse is widespread and rampant. Our student-athletes would be better served if the IHSA addressed the issue as a whole, rather than random testing that nabs only a few by chance.

Our kids deserve a level playing field. Give them every opportunity to succeed. Violators should absolutely be punished. But put a good foundation in place first and make sure they clearly understand the potentially damaging consequences. Arm them with the wisdom and knowledge to help them make wise choices.

Testing simply means the cheaters will seek new ways around the system. By contrast, education will deliver a greater impact from top to bottom through preventive training.

Drug testing is a game of "gotcha." We shouldn't be playing games when it comes to the well-being of our kids.