Performance Anxiety

Can we afford to test high school athletes for PEDs?


Let's go ahead and blame (or thank) Alex Rodriguez. It seems to work for everything else.

The former Jacksonville Sun, Miami native and high school state championship baseball player has had a rough time of it lately. Rodriguez's link to Biogenesis of America, a Miami firm in the business of "enhancing" the performance of athletes, has been all over the news this summer — and the bulk of the coverage has been negative.

At this writing, Rodriguez is back playing for the Yankees. This quite likely might be his last stint.

With the threat of suspension from Major League Baseball for 211 games looming over his head pending an appeal from the union, any suspension would be a career-ender for the embattled 38-year-old third baseman and three-time Most Valuable Player.

Rodriguez once was widely heralded as one of the game's greats. Before the PED scandals hit, smarter minds than mine had him on the fast track to Cooperstown. Now? He gets booed. At home. Unless he's hitting home runs.

See, that's the paradox about performance-enhancing drugs. Everyone's against them — in theory. In theory, we all have unwavering moral codes, and we'd rather play fair and lose than cheat and win. Trouble is, for athletes, there's a limited window during which one can succeed. Success means many things — winning, cashing in, earning individual accolades. But if someone is giving his life to a sport, racing against time and attendant deterioration, it's rational to wonder, regarding cheating: Why not?

No one these days admits that Rodriguez is his favorite athlete. However, he's still influential — at least the much-lambasted mindset that drove him to performance enhancement is.

In July, a former Biogenesis employee, Porter Fischer, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that teen boys — high school athletes — would visit the clinic looking for that extra edge that included "[s]ports performance packages, which would include HGH, testosterone."

"[Some] of the time I would see some come in by themselves, but most of the time, [with] their parents," Fischer said. "But still, if a 16-year-old person can't tan without their parents' permission, I don't know how in the world it's possible that somebody can get this stuff."

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the official rhetoric on performance-enhancing drugs and how people in a position to benefit perceive them. We all "know" that PEDs have deleterious long-term effects and, in the short term, create competitive imbalance between users and abstainers. However, if your home run swing or your ability to tackle is your meal ticket, your way out of the subdivision, trailer court or rundown apartment complex, the question becomes one of "why not?" As in, why not maximize a finite opportunity?

In this context, the decision by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) to take a harder look at performance-enhancing drugs is a good one. The Rodriguez scandal has put Biogenesis in the spotlight and, as the politicians say, it's bad form to let a crisis go to waste.

The FHSAA prohibits PED use. Policy 31.2 states, "The use of anabolic steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs by a student-athlete is not permissible and is considered to be an act of unsportsmanlike conduct. A student-athlete discovered to be using such substances will be ineligible to compete in any interscholastic contest until such time as medical evidence can be presented that the student's system is free of those substances."

The problem? The FHSAA cannot test for these substances. As FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing put it in a recent conference call, "School districts and private schools have the authority to [drug-test] … the FHSAA does not."

Across the country, we've seen a dramatic increase in schools testing for drugs, but given other issues — such as the increasingly questionable quality of secondary education throughout Florida and the United States — it's hard not to wonder how much of a priority testing actually is.

Not only does the FHSAA lack the authority to drug test, it lacks the budget. This raises the question of how to pay for testing. Will corporations do it? Will there be referenda on upcoming ballots to raise sales taxes a bit to finance this issue? In an earlier time, the solution might have been to find — or create — the funds to do this. During our current age of austerity, the question must be framed with the classic limited resources dilemma:

Even though testing is a good idea, can it be done at all? Or will policymakers have to accept their limitations and abide by the consequences? 

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