Florida's High School Steroid Testing Is a Farce
As teenagers in neon cleats stutter-step between lines of orange cones on the sun-baked grass behind Norland Senior High, one boy fumbles a pass thrown right at his hands. Coach Daryle Heidelburg punctuates the sweltering afternoon with a booming outburst. "Damian, get on the ground, please!" he hollers to the receiver, who immediately falls to his chest and begins doing pushups. "First ball they throw to you? Don't go first if you gonna drop it!"
Just a mile and a half west, Sun Life Stadium looms over the practice. It represents the distant hope of college and pro glory for the few kids big and fast enough to jump from the Norland Vikings to the next level. As these student-athletes and tens of thousands of other kids across Florida report for class this week, competition has never been tougher.
That's why Coach Heidelburg wasn't shocked when Biogenesis clinic founder Tony Bosch and six others were indicted two weeks ago and charged with, among other things, selling steroids to at least 18 local high school athletes. One of Bosch's longtime clients, it turns out, was prominent area baseball coach Tommy Martinez.
"It's gonna take something catastrophic, something major, to happen to make a difference," Heidelburg says while watching his players nab spiraled balls from the air. "Once a kid passes out or almost dies on the field... because of the drugs, we'll finally get real change." (Broward doesn't drug-test student-athletes and has announced no plans to do so.)
Indeed, it turns out new drug-testing rules that Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced with a flourish the day after Bosch's arrest are a farce unlikely to cause any kind of change.
The reason: The county has allocated a comically tiny $73,000 for the program. Even the best-funded high school testing of performance-enhancing drugs is counterproductive, some advocates say, because the easy-to-beat screenings obscure the number of kids actually using.
"You're not only wasting money, you're doing more harm than good," says Don Hooton, who runs the Taylor Hooton Foundation, a group named for his son, a high school pitcher who killed himself after taking steroids. "No one will test positive except for one idiot, and then the superintendent and coaches and parents can walk away and say, 'See, there wasn't a steroid problem at all!' "
In addition, the state has instituted new rules that are dependent on tips, but New Times has learned only six have been filed in the past five years, resulting in no action at the state level.
It seems school leaders and coaches have taken the wrong lesson from Biogenesis' high school scandal. Education programs about the dangers of PEDs, not useless testing policies or token rule changes, should be the focus, Hooton says. Yet to date, zero new funds have been earmarked for steroid education. "Spend it where it can count — in educating the coaches, educating the kids, which is not being done," he says.
Hooton wasn't always against youth steroid testing. Taylor's mental illness was accelerated by the steroids he'd taken with his Dallas high school teammates, he says. So after the boy's July 15, 2003 suicide, Don Hooton became a full-time activist fighting the drugs' use by young athletes. One of the first steps he took was to push Texas to institute statewide random testing for high-schoolers. That measure took years to find any traction.
Florida's first foray into statewide steroid testing started in 2007, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill ordering random tests for high school football, baseball, and weightlifting athletes. That decision came in the wake of the BALCO scandal and just before the investigation by Sen. George Mitchell into Major League Baseball's rampant steroid problems.
The results should have been a warning sign for drug-testing advocates. With a paltry budget from Tallahassee, less than 1 percent of the state's athletes were tested. And of the more than 600 kids tested, only one athlete failed. Crist soon canceled the program.
The next year in Texas, thanks in part to Hooton's lobbying, the Lone Star State began its program. It was better funded than Florida's effort, with $3 million allocated to test more than 10,000 student-athletes. Yet Hooton was shocked at the results. Only 26 kids failed. That's less than 1 percent.
Hooton knew from firsthand experience and talking to his son's teammates after his death that there were probably 26 athletes at his Plano high school alone using steroids. What was the problem?
As he talked to experts, including UCLA's Don Caitlin — the drug-testing pioneer who first nabbed BALCO's notorious "the Clear" steroid — Hooton realized the truth: Even a well-funded high school testing program was hopelessly overmatched by the science of modern doping.
"Put aside those designer steroids from BALCO and there are 120 or thereabouts types of steroids commonly available on the market," Hooton says. "We were spending about $150 per test in Texas, and that was only enough for a panel that could ID a grand total of ten types of steroids."
What's more, student-athletes are rarely required to pee in a cup with a supervisor watching — a minimum standard on the Olympic and professional levels that ensures samples aren't tampered with. So even if an athlete is unfortunate — or stupid — enough to take a steroid within the short time period a basic test might catch him, most high schools can catch only a tiny minority of cheaters.
In the meantime, Hooton saw the downside of this weak testing. As the Texas program faltered — with less than 1 percent of kids failing tests annually — coaches and administrators became increasingly convinced there was no problem. Education programs were neglected, and conversations about steroids in high school ended.
So Hooton changed his mind. He now argues vehemently against high school testing. Major-league sports spend millions to test athletes, and still the majority of Bosch's clientele never failed while on his regimen. What hope does an underfunded high school system have? After five years of testing — 62,892 tests with only 190 positive results — Texas officials have come to agree; a state commission recommended just this month that the program be ended.
Yet in South Florida, Bosch admitted to selling drugs such as steroids and human growth hormone to at least 18 minors. He also ran a side business in the Dominican Republic that concentrated on doping baseball prospects as young as 12 years old. He also treated high-schoolers in the Coral Gables clinic.
Two prominent youth coaches also appear in Bosch's records. Tommy Martinez, a longtime high school baseball coach who runs an academy based in the Southwest Ranches area, and Benny Fragela, who runs a basketball camp at the Hank Kline Boys & Girls Club, just off South Dixie Highway and SW 32nd Avenue. (Both acknowledged being Bosch clients but denied providing steroids to any athletes. Martinez says Bosch helped him with weight problems, while Fragela says he went to the unlicensed doctor for help with an Achilles tendon injury.)
There's another statewide rule change coming in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal. The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) passed reforms that go into effect this week when football season kicks off. Among those rules: an outright ban on human growth hormone for the first time and a policy to ban for a year any coach or parent who helps a kid get steroids or HGH. "When Biogenesis came into view, we realized we needed a tougher policy in place," says FHSAA president Dr. Roger Dearing.
Like the drug testing, the policy is based on sound concerns — but highly unlikely to change anything. That's because the new policy relies on tips and the state hardly receives any. A recent freedom-of-information request for all emails referencing steroids or human growth hormone sent to FHSAA since 2009 turned up just six of them — barely one a year. And they were hardly the kind that would lead to suspensions.
One man working out at a Tampa-area YMCA wrote to the FHSAA to complain about a high school football player. "His arms have tripled in size," the man complained, "and he is showing significant acne on his upper arms." The man didn't include a name, though, so investigators forwarded the complaint to the local school district.
Most of the tips passed on second-hand gossip about vague steroid rumors. None resulted in any FHSAA suspensions. (Dearing says other tips may go directly to local districts, which aren't required to report their actions to FHSAA.)
Back at Norland's roasting midafternoon practice, Coach Heidelburg says he has doubts about testing. "Is there enough money that's going to be put into it?" he asks while watching his players. "If you bring more awareness to the problem now and you have fewer kids doing it in high school, that's the main thing. That means fewer kids doing it in college, and then fewer who are professionals. It's a trickle-down effect."
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