AUSTIN, Texas – When Texas began testing tens of thousands of high school athletes for steroids, the goal was to stop teens from taking dangerous performance-enhancing drugs. The death of a 17-year-old baseball player in a Dallas suburb had drawn national attention to the hazard.
But that program could now be axed to save money. Tough economic times are prompting the state along with school districts across the country to pull back from steroid testing just a few years after a series of scandals in professional and amateur sports.
“When steroids was all over the media, everybody said ‘We’ve got to have it,'” said Chris Franz of Sport Safe, an Ohio-based company that conducts recreational drug and steroid testing for hundreds of high schools and districts across the country.
In 2008, Texas became the third state to begin steroid testing, setting up a massive $6 million program. Every one of the state’s 700,000-plus public school athletes - from freshmen female tennis players to senior offensive linemen in football - were eligible to be randomly selected, pulled from class and required to submit a urine sample.
But after the first 50,000 tests produced fewer than two dozen confirmed cases, critics derided the effort as a waste of money. This month, with the state facing a projected $15 billion budget shortfall, the House’s first draft budget eliminated the program’s money. A Senate draft still includes funding.
Even some one-time supporters of screening are wavering. “We accomplished our goal,” said state Rep. Dan Flynn, “and that was to educate and create a deterrent.”
New Jersey and Illinois also have statewide programs. Florida eliminated its small testing program in 2009. Many school districts also conducted testing although the exact number isn’t known.
Programs were often funded with state and federal grants. Now, as the money starts running out, so does the desire to keep testing Depending on the complexity of the test, steroid testing can easily exceed $100 per student and when schools see very few getting caught, they decide to pull back.
“If schools had the budget to do it, they would,” Franz said. “The biggest thing Texas would be missing is the deterrent. And that’s too bad.”
Supporters of steroid testing insist that the rarity of confirmed cases shows the program is working as a deterrent.
Eliminating the program now would only encourage steroid use, said Don Hooton, of Frisco, who started the Taylor Hooton Foundation after his 17-year-old son’s suicide in 2003 was linked to steroid use. He has testified before Congress and the Legislature to advocate for testing.
“It’s like a school district that has a serious gun violence problem and puts up metal detectors,” Hooton said. “When gun violence goes down, they say ‘Well, that’s a waste of money, let’s take the metal detectors away because we don’t have a problem anymore.'”
Texas has been scaling down the program almost since it began. The original $6 million budget was slashed to $2 million in 2009.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, an early supporter, intends to fight to preserve the tests as “an important deterrent,” said his spokesman, Mike Walz. When put up against proposed budget cuts for teachers and pre-kindergarten programs, health care for the poor and myriad other budget issues, said Flynn, “What’s more important? We didn’t catch a lot of kids, but we were hoping we wouldn’t have to. I can’t fight to get $1.8 million.”
Jeff Horn, principal at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev., calls the funding excuse “a cop-out.” Green Valley started Nevada’s first public school drug testing program in 2008 and hasn’t had a positive test for steroids yet, but intends to continue after its federal grant runs out this year. Horn said student fees will be used to pay for the tests. “It’s not about athletics anymore,” Horn said. “It’s about saving lives.”
Hooton said Texas could still have a smaller testing program that targets sports most likely to find steroid users, such as football, baseball and weightlifting. In 2007, lawmakers briefly considered a “ticket tax”, a 25-cent fee on football and basketball game tickets, to pay for testing. Gov. Rick Perry and Republicans holding majorities in the House and Senate and have pledged not to raise taxes this session.
Hooton said Texas’ action will have national consequences.
“There are eyes from all over the United States that are watching this program. It is the shining star, the most substantial effort and I’m very proud of it,” Hooton said. “If Texas kills this program, it will become an excuse for other states to never stick their toe in the water and make a run in this thing.”