Steroid Use: Punishment must fit the crime

Here is an OpEd piece authored by THF that ran in the 2/28/2011 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Steroid use punishment must fit the crime

Over the last few years, federal law enforcement has taken steps to crack down on the illegal use of and trafficking in performance enhancing drugs. As a result, a number of high profile athletes, including baseball’s Roger Clemens and cycling’s Lance Armstrong, are now ensnared in ongoing investigations. As these cases come to closure, there is an important opportunity to help educate our nation’s young people that using these drugs is illegal, cheating and sometimes even deadly.

Courts and prosecutors have the ability to fashion penalties to aid the victims of offenses and prevent future harms. For example, the penalties imposed in the tobacco settlements have funded anti-smoking campaigns. In the case of steroids and other performance-enhancing drug use, the real victims are our children. A 2008 study of students in 12 states determined that about 50 percent of students in grades 8 through 12 who admitted to using these drugs said that the behaviors of professional athletes influenced his or her decision to use. The impact is serious.

According to federal surveys, about 1 million high school students admit to knowingly using anabolic steroids. Moreover, this does not reflect the millions of other young people who are unwittingly taking steroids in illegally spiked supplements. Two studies show that up to 20 percent of bodybuilding supplements sold over the counter contain illegal steroids. This problem is fueled by the fact that the only information most children have about these drugs is that they work – they have seen the results professional athletes achieve using them.

Kids lack the information necessary to act responsibly, in large part, because the federal government dedicates literally no resources to educating young people about these drugs. We need to educate all our kids. However, that will take resources, which are in short supply.

One way to fix this problem is for judges and prosecutors in these cases to tailor punishments to help prevent our children from turning to these drugs. This approach would provide real resources to anti-steroid and other performance enhancing drug prevention programs. Using Bonds as an example, at the peak of his alleged steroid use, his salary over two years was in the tens of millions. A small percentage of just one year’s pay could fund education programs for hundreds of thousands of children.

Not only can these monies be put to good use, but so too can the individuals seeking to make amends. Just as Michael Vick was compelled to work with the Humane Society of the United States, any punishment involving these athletes should harness their celebrity. Let their community service help correct the misperceptions that their actions created among our children.

Imagine the impact it would have on our children if these athletes who have run afoul of the law stood before them and explained just where their drug use got them. This approach might not only save the lives of our children, but it might also rebuild the lives and futures of these athletes.

Don Hooton is the founder and president of the Taylor Hooton Foundation ( www.taylorhooton.org), which is dedicated to educating young people about the dangers of appearance and performance enhancing drug use.

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