Saturday, July 05, 2008

Justifying Failure: Columnist defends steroid testing high school athletes despite logic and evidence. What about police?

I'm amazed anyone can look at the results from Texas' experiment steroid testing high school athletes - which identified two steroid users out of more than 10,000 tests given - and think the idea was anything but an abominable failure. However, columnist Cedric Golden at the Austin Statesman believes that cost-benefit analysis is just fine ("Steroid problem should be tackled at home, not just with testing," July 3):
So Texas taxpayers spent $3 million to expose two steroid users?

The $1.5 million-per-positive test would appear from the outside to be a muscle-headed waste of our tax dollars. It would also suggest the other $3 million earmarked to test 40,000 to 50,000 athletes this coming school year should be put back in the vault.

Not exactly.

The numbers may not bear it out, but the state made progress here. Somewhere out there, at least one kid was scared straight by the thought of the parents' negative reaction to a positive drug test.

So the state "made progress" because by spending $3 million they might have "scared" one kid? Really? Scaring kids isn't that hard, when you get down to it - that's not such a great accomplishment for that much money! After all, is spending $3 million to change behaviors of three kids instead of two really all that much better?

I continue to believe steroid testing in Texas police departments would yield a much larger number of illegal steroid users than any batch of high school kids you can find, and to be honest it matters a lot more!

Por ejemplo, now-deceased steroid dealer David Jacobs claimed to have sold steroids to officers in five Metroplex police departments before he and his girlfriend died of gunshot wounds this spring that were ruled a murder/suicide. Dallas PD implemented department-wide steroid testing after the incident, but the other four (Garland, Richardson, Arlington and Plano) did not. That's apparently a bigger nest of illegal steroid use identified than in all of Texas high school athletics!

Golden asks several questions about the testing of high schoolers aimed at rationalizing its continuation, all of which appear to me to have obvious answers, but let's run through them: "Did we learn anything?" Yes! We learned that the problem of steroid use in high school is dramatically overhyped by the media and not really that big deal.

"Did the testers scare off the users, or are high school students using masking agents?" Since when does anyone think high school students pay attention to the newspaper or the actions of the state Legislature? It's a safe bet most students never had the remotest inkling about the test until their own coach announced it. As for masking agents, they're a crapshoot; they don't work consistently enough to explain these results, and anyway it's a reach to think everybody figured out how to cheat.

"Are they testing at the right time of the year?" Well at what time of year besides summer aren't high schoolers somewhere participating in athletics? Unless you operate under the assumption that only football jocks use steroids (or that athletes stop training in the off season), that makes no sense at all.

Texas legislators should take that same $3 million per year in the next budget and use it to pay for random testing in Texas police and sheriff departments. I'm certain we'd get a lot more bang for the buck in terms of how many steroid abusers the state identified and the relative import of each finding.

That said, if Texas did 10,000 tests and found only two steroid users among police, I'd be the first to say it was unnecessary and needed to be discontinued. There's no need to manufacture problems that don't exist (though I suppose they're easier to solve that way!). Even after writing on Grits for several years now in favor of steroid testing for police, if the in-the-real-world results turned out that lopsided, I couldn't imagine viable arguments for continuing it. That goes double in the case of high school athletes.

See prior related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Dude, don't you think steroid testing money would be better spent putting MORE cops on the street rather than feeding your paranoid fantasies about rogue officers? Read the editorial about the dismal failure of steroid testing of high school atheletes in the Statesman today.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Dude," it's hardly a fantasy: there's ample evidence that steroid use among police officers is more prevalent than was discovered among HS athletes (ck the links in the post). We've even seen cases of officers dealing them.

My point is that if you're going to test anybody, start with cops. Use of illegal steroids or any illicit drugs is a bigger deal among law enforcement than civilians because participation in the black market opens them up to blackmail and corruption. That's why, if you're going to begin steroid testing, that's the obvious place to start, not high schools. OTOH I'd settle for simply following up on specific allegations of steroid abuse by officers authorities already have in hand.

Finally, the state of Texas paid for the testing of athletes, but doesn't pay for local police salaries, so your "putting more cops on the street" foolishness is simply unhinged from reality. Nice knee-jerk rhetorical flourish, though ... dude.