The Little League World Series begins Thursday, but the most important development at this year’s gathering of the world’s top 12-year-old baseball teams won’t happen on the iconic Howard J. Lamade Stadium field. For the first time, Little League, which boasts a membership of more than 2.4 million boys and girls around the world, will develop an education program about the dangers of steroid and performance enhancing drug use for young baseball and softball players, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Sparked to action by Major League Baseball’s most recent drug suspensions, which the league handed to a total of 14 players tied to the Biogenesis scandal, Little League will partner with the Taylor Hooton Foundation to develop an online education program for the organization’s thousands of coaches and volunteers. The program aims to educate children, their parents, and their coaches about the dangers of steroid and PED use, especially after recent polls showed that relatively few American adults viewed PED use among teenagers as a serious problem.
As much as we care about clean games and clean players at the Major League level, the implications of drug use at the youth level are far worse. Young users of steroids and PEDs can add muscle mass too quickly, stressing their bodies and changing growth plates that lead to irreversible stunted growth patterns. Steroid use can also stop the body from producing necessary hormones, like testosterone, naturally, which also causes damaging physical effects in the long-term. The hormonal shifts caused by steroid use also leads to psychological changes, including severe attitude shifts and depression. Depression that occurs from steroid withdrawal has been anecdotally linked to multiple teenage suicides. Don Hooton, in fact, started the Hooton Foundation after his 17-year-old son, Taylor, committed suicide after he stopped using steroids in 2003.
Surveys estimate that as many as 1.5 million young Americans have used steroids, according to the AP report.
Much of the conversation about the Biogenesis scandal has focused on the impact it may have on children who look up to Major Leaguers like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, and leagues, lawmakers, and testing proponents have long cited the example professionals set for children in pushing more extensive testing programs. While that is an understandable concern, it also makes it easy to miss the point.
The efficacy of drug testing as a deterrent to use has been questioned at the professional level, where athletes are often ahead of the testing curve, but it also isn’t particularly effective at the high school or youth level either. At a Congressional hearing in December, Dr. Linn Goldberg from Oregon Health Sciences University testified to that very fact, saying that “drug testing of athletes was not associated with lower illicit drug use among male high school athletes.” The question, then, was obvious if not asked by any members of Congress: if drug testing high school athletes didn’t deter drug use, why would more extensive tests for professional athletes deter drug use among the kids who look up to them?
The answer from Goldberg is that it almost surely wouldn’t. So instead of focusing on drug testing young athletes or using the testing of professionals to set an example, Goldberg stressed that youth leagues, parents, and coaches should focus on education. He developed two programs, one known as ATLAS (for boys) and the other as ATHENA (for girls), to foster more education about the harmful effects of drugs, including those of the performance enhancing variety, among young students and athletes. The results, Goldberg testified, were positive: athletes subjected to the ATLAS program reported a 50 percent decline in steroid use. The ATHENA program resulted in lower rates of both performance enhancing and dietary drug use.
Little League’s program will likely vary from ATLAS and ATHENA, but it still puts the focus more on education of coaches, parents, and players rather than testing to deter use. That, as Don Hooton told the Associated Press, will equip parents and coaches to answer questions their children might have about sluggers like Braun and Rodriguez, allowing them to teach children that steroid use “is wrong and here are the consequences of it. You are seeing highly visible, high-profile baseball players jeopardize their own health and paying a huge price from their livelihoods and how they are perceived publicly.”
It’s impossible to remove the incentives that drive steroid use: there will always be a starting spot, a college scholarship, a draft, or the Major Leagues providing the justification for some young athletes. Combating those incentives, though, will take smart approaches that don’t rely solely on chasing down young athletes with extensive tests or waiting for Major League Baseball to hammer users to set an example for young athletes. If doctors like Goldberg are right and educating young athletes and their parents and coaches about the dangers of performance enhancing drug use is the best approach, then Little League would seem to be on the right track with its response to Major League Baseball’s latest drug scandal.