In a nation where the Super Bowl is the most-watched night on television and professional athletes in a range of sports rake in millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements, it's not hard to see why many kids grow up idolizing athletes. Some sports stars may deny they are role models for a younger generation, but a new study suggests quite the contrary.
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Among students in grades 8 through 12 who admitted to using anabolic steroids in a confidential survey, 57 percent said professional athletes influenced their decision to use the drugs and 63 percent said pro athletes influenced their friends' decision to use them. Eighty percent of users — and 35 percent of non-users — said they believed steroids could help them achieve their athletic dreams.
What's more, the steroid users said they were willing to take extreme risks to reach sports stardom or other athletic goals. The survey found that 65 percent of steroid users versus 6 percent of non-users said they would be willing to use a pill or powder, including dietary supplements, if it guaranteed they would reach their athletic goals even if it may harm their health, and 57 percent of users versus 4 percent of non-users said they would take a pill or powder even if it may shorten their life.
"It's scary," says study author Jay Hoffman, chair of health and exercise science at the College of New Jersey in Ewing. "This study shows that adolescents are willing to take those risks."
The survey, conducted from 2005 to 2006, involved more than 3,200 students in 12 states, most of them from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. Other states included Iowa, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Missouri, Ohio, Colorado, New York, Minnesota and California.
Overall, 1.6 percent of students (2.4 percent of boys and .8 percent of girls) — about 50 students in total — reported using anabolic steroids, according to results published in the January issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. That's lower than more nationally representative research, such as the government's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which found in 2005 that 4 percent of kids in grades 9 through 12 reported steroid use.
In the new survey, steroid use increased with age, especially in boys, with almost 6 percent of 12th grade males reporting steroid use.
Some students reported using other dietary supplements to boost their game or physical appearance. Of all students surveyed, 17 percent said they had used supplements such as protein powders, creatine and amino acids to gain body mass. And 35 percent said they had used supplements such as fat burners, high-energy drinks, ephedra and caffeine pills in an attempt to lose weight. The more supplements kids took, the more likely they were to also use steroids.
The sports world has been rocked by steroid scandals in recent months. In December, for instance, the Mitchell Report implicated more than 80 professional baseball players in the use of steroids. And last fall, sprinter Marion Jones admitted to lying about steroid use and returned her five Olympic medals.
Not all kids see anything wrong with steroids in sports though. In the new survey, 57 percent of steroid users and 12 percent of non-users said they believe pro athletes have the right to use steroids. And 60 percent of users and 29 percent of non-users actually thought using anabolic steroids for athletic purposes is legal.
Hoffman blames lack of education about the dangers of these drugs as well as the influence of elite athletes who use steroids.
"I believe there is an inherent responsibility of being a role model," Hoffman says. "Whether they want it or not, it comes with the territory."
Dr. Linn Goldberg, who's involved with national programs to counter steroids in youth sports, says the new study confirms what he has seen anecdotally.
"Sports role models are very powerful in a young kid's life," says Goldberg, who is head of the division of health promotion and sports medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "The mindset is that if [a pro athlete] had to use that, then maybe I should use that."
Through his program called Athletes Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids (ATLAS), he is trying to educate kids that there are alternatives to steroids, such as sports-specific training regimens and diets that help athletes gain muscle naturally.
Don Hooton wishes he had known about the warning signs of steroid abuse. His son, Taylor, 17, killed himself in 2003, six weeks after discontinuing steroid use.
"All the signs were there that Taylor was using steroids," says Hooton, who lives in Plano, Texas. Taylor, a high school baseball player, worked out three times a day, gained 30 pounds of muscle in 90 days, developed acne on his back and started having 'roid rages. "He would just fly off the handle for seemingly no reason," says Hooton.
The Hootons knew something was wrong, but they didn't know what. And they actually praised him for his muscle development because they thought it was the pure result of all his hard work at the gym. They didn't realize it's impossible to naturally gain so much muscle so quickly.
Now through the Taylor Hooton Foundation, the family is working to raise awareness of the dangers of steroids in youth. Because teens are still developing and already have raging hormones, experts worry that steroids — which, among other possible effects, may shrink testicles, raise cholesterol, promote liver tumors, spur breast growth in males, and shrink breasts and deepen voice in females — may be particularly dangerous for them.
The foundation also is pushing for more drug testing for steroids in schools. New Jersey and Florida are already doing testing, and Texas and Illinois are making plans to test. "We need a random testing program not to put a kid in jail but to give them a chance to get caught," says Hooton. If kids face the threat of getting caught and being kicked off a team or losing a scholarship, they might think twice before using steroids or other performance-enhancers, he says.
Such testing isn't perfect though. It can't reliably detect human growth hormone, for instance, which is believed to be catching on with youth athletes as it seems to be with adults.
That's why Hooton and others hope the sports world cracks down harder on doping. "It's not just about [pro athletes]," Hooton says. "It's about our kids. It's about Taylor and hundreds of thousands of kids."
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