Starting this fall, New Jersey high school athletes will be the first in the nation to undergo random testing for steroids.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's executive board voted unanimously today to approve the unprecedented drug testing program, which will require athletes who qualify for state championships to be tested at random for more than 80 banned substances, including steroids and several diuretics.
"We're hoping that the effect will be to drastically deter athletes from taking substances that enhance performance," said Bob Baly, the association's assistant director.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6 percent of high school athletes took steroids in 2003 without a prescription from a doctor.
"We have 240,00 student athletes, so 6 percent is about 13,000 students," Baly said. "If we had an epidemic of disease where 13,000 students had a disease, we would consider that a big problem."
Earlier in the day, Michigan's Senate also approved legislation aimed at keeping steroid and performance-enhancing drugs out of schools.
The legislation requires school boards and charter schools to establish steroid policies and the state's Department of Community Health to develop a list of banned substances and make it available to school districts.
Critics point out, however, that the measure does not provide for random testing of athletes.
"What we passed just says schools have to come up with a policy, and it doesn't even say athletes will become ineligible," said Michael Switalski, a state senator whose amendment to require random steroid testing was rejected. "I commend the New Jersey athletic association, and I think they stand as a great example for stepping up to the responsibility."
Support for the New Jersey drug testing policy is not universal.
The New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union is one group that has publicly objected to the program, saying it infringes on the rights of families and sends the wrong message to students.
"We understand the desire to protect young people from the dangers of steroid use, however, we find that this effort sometimes takes on a zeal that ignores other legitimate concerns," said Annu Mangat, communication director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union. "Is the approach of guilty until innocent a lesson we want to teach our student athletes?"
Under the program, athletes and their parents and guardians will be required to sign a form consenting to random testing in order to be eligible to participate in athletic programs. Testing would be conducted during championship seasons, after championship events.
Although test results would not come back until several weeks after the championship event, Baly said the policy was designed so that no athlete could take a banned substance between the time they were tested and the time the competition took place.
Teams will not be affected if an individual member is found to have taken a banned substance, Baly said, but individuals will be stripped of their titles and banned from all interscholastic actives for 365 days.
"Kids want fairness," Baly said. "If anything else, they want to be treated fairly, and when someone takes a performance-enhancing drug, it becomes unfair."