Speakers from the Taylor Hooton Foundation warned student athletes about the perils of a wide range of performance boosters, from steroids to easily available energy drinks and over-the-counter supplements.
SMITHFIELD – The day he first spoke about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs, Don Hooton Sr. didn’t know this would become his calling. It had been just six weeks since his son Taylor had committed suicide at the age of 17 – six weeks that entailed stunning and heart-rending research into the perils and the pervasiveness of performance-enhancing drugs.
Don Hooton had seen all the textbook signs of steroid abuse in his son – rage, acne, even bad breath. But he had no idea these were all linked to steroids, and he didn’t know the impact the drugs were having on his son’s mind.
Hooton gave that initial talk at Plano West High School, north of Dallas, to make sure other parents knew those signs before it was too late. Within a week of that first talk, he had heard from the Dallas Morning News, The New York Times and “60 Minutes.” An outlet of grieving had become, in his words, “a life’s mission.”
Nearly 14 years later, the Taylor Hooton Foundation continues the work Don started that summer of 2003. On Friday night, before an audience of 500 Bryant University athletes, the foundation delivered the final of nearly a dozen presentations made across the state this week aimed at educating Rhode Island’s youth about performance-enhancers.
The talk is part of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s Operation Clean Competition, funded by a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation. (The money originates from a court case against GeneScience Pharmaceuticals, which illegally distributed human-growth hormone last decade.)
This is the fourth year the RIIL has partnered with the Taylor Hooton Foundation, combining to educate more than 50,000 kids from middle school through college across the state – programs that come at no cost to the individual school.
“Nobody talks about it,” said Tracy Quarella, the RIIL’s director of marketing. “Our campaign this year is, ‘Before you shake or take, educate.’ There’s so much to be done. We’re trying to reach as many people as we can.”
Given the diversity of audiences, Brian Parker, the foundation’s director of education, tailors his presentation each time he gives it. Realizing a discussion about the dangers of PEDs was likely not the ideal start for a Friday night on a college campus, he kept his presentation brisk and interactive, including memes alongside sobering pictures of where steroids are produced and what they can do to a body.
Parker’s presentation included a text line where athletes could send in questions anonymously to be answered at the end of the night – a way to combat self-censorship.
“It’s still a topic that’s very much bury-your-head-in-the-sand,” said Parker, who has been with the foundation for seven years. “It’s still, ‘If I ask a question or someone sees me doing that, I’m going to be accused of doing something.’ It becomes one of those issues where we have to convince them it’s OK to talk about what’s going on.”
Those in the crowd who trudged in expecting a lecture rehashing old talking points were surprised by an informal discussion that spent more time analyzing the pros and cons of over-the-counter supplements than traditional steroids.
“What I wasn’t expecting was there was a lot of stuff on energy drinks, a lot of stuff on supplements and powders that I know a lot of athletes take,” said Grace Farrell, a junior field hockey player. “I didn’t know that it wasn’t regulated. A lot of the stuff he showed us, it’s shocking that’s what’s on our market.”