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Defunding of Texas Steroid Testing Program A Chance to Consider Better Ways for Schools To Spend Money on Sports

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A recent article in the Boston Globe reported that a controversial steroid testing program of high school athletes in Texas is in danger of being de-funded, as the state House budget has cut the money for the program.  The Senate draft still includes funding for the program.  Florida eliminated a small testing program in 2009.  New Jersey and Illinois also have statewide programs.

Tagging the runnerBegun in 2008, the $6 million Texas program called for random steroid testing of the state's more than 700,000 public high school.   But when the first 50,000 tests produced only 24 confirmed cases, critics began deriding the program as a waste of money.

Spend money on sports programs

With Texas likely to join Florida in scrapping its steroid testing program, time again to consider better uses of the money, as I did in a Washington Post op ed back in December 2006, when then-White House director of National Drug Policy, John Waltes, and Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon, announced with great fanfare an award of $8.6 million in federal money for student drug testing programs.

One way, I think, to get the maximum bang for the buck would be to provide additional funding of after-school sports and exercise programs.  Not only would such programs likely reduce drug use and teen pregnancies (studies show that teens are most at risk of engaging in such unhealthy behavior in the afternoon hours before their parents get home from work), but it would help more kids get the 60 minutes of exercise experts say they need every day, thus reducing childhood obesity.

I have long advocated for reform the interscholastic sports programs in the nation's public middle and high schools to provide for full inclusion.  The current public high school model - one first-year team, one varsity, one sub varsity - might have made sense at the time it was adopted in 1924, when the number of roster spots was roughly equal to the number of those who wanted to play. But it makes no sense today, when the number of those who want to continue playing sports in middle school and high school far exceeds the finite number of spots available.

It is especially important for teenagers to know that they belong; that they fit in. Cutting tells teenagers that they don't fit in, that they don't belong. This is the wrong message to send during adolescence. As the most prominent of all high school extracurricular activities, athletics continues to confer on its participants the highest levels of status and prestige in our teenage culture. The feeling by athletes that they are special tends to lead to disharmony, the creation of cliques, and to reinforcing the jock culture, not to promoting feelings of community, full inclusion, and cooperative learning that schools work so hard to instill. Adopting a policy of full inclusion would be especially beneficial for teenage boys, for whom sports would provide an outlet for their aggression and help them connect socially with other boys.

Under full inclusion, teams would be added as necessary to meet the demand, even if it meant fielding two or three more teams. Every athlete would practice, but only athletes in good academic standing and with no disciplinary problems would suit up for games. To ensure that schools would field the most competitive teams, the most skilled players would still get the bulk of the playing time at the varsity level.

The extra teams could be funded through the additional user fees, with money raised by booster clubs and/or by parents of the athletes themselves, some of whom could be recruited as volunteer coaches. Government money now spent on drug testing of athletes could be redirected to fund more sports teams.

According to a February 2006 Gallup Youth Study, one in five teens is overweight with only 21 percent of teens claiming to participate in sports or recreation five to six days a week and only 19 percent of our teens participating in vigorous sports or physical activity five to six days a week. (Indeed a 2010 study suggests that organized sports participation is often not enough to meet a child's need for exercise). Children who are cut from sports teams will not exercise as frequently as they would if they were playing sports; they are much more likely to spend their afternoons watching television, becoming obese, and getting into trouble.  A policy of full inclusion for interscholastic sports at the middle and high school level would also eliminate one of the principal reasons for parental misconduct in youth sports.

Given the intense competition for the limited roster spots on high school teams, no wonder so many parents are led by our winner-take-all society to act in inappropriate ways - to become violent when they see their child's chances at winning one of the coveted spots threatened by a coach who decides to sit him or her on the bench.

It simply makes no sense whatsoever from a public health standpoint to continue the cutting policy that contributes to an overall decline in physical fitness among adolescents and young adults and does nothing to combat drug use by keeping teens busy in after-school programs such as sports.

Brooke de Lench is the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) and Founder and Publisher of MomsTeam.com.

Do you have a story to share? You can reach me at delench@momsteam.com. 

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