Legal Implications of Steroid Use by Amateur Athletes Today
Scarcely a day goes by when Americans are not confronted with headlines or commentators announcing the latest scandals of amateur or professional athletes being discovered taking steroids. Given the enormous amount of attention directed at this trend in recent years, many observers are left wondering what all of the fuss is really about. In order to discern the facts, this paper provides a review and discussion of the scholarly and peer-reviewed literature concerning steroid use among amateur and professional athletes, followed by an analysis of the salient issues. A summary of the research and recommendations are provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview.
The use of various performance-enhancing drugs by competitive athletes is certainly not a new phenomenon; for hundreds of years, athletes from around the world have attempted to gain a competitive advantage in their quest for victory and one such approach to gaining advantage has been through the use of performance-enhancing substances (Allison, Diacin, & Parks, 2003). According to these authors, media attention and concern among educators and policymakers alike about drug use among athletes actually began in the 1950s. “At that time,” they say, “concern focused primarily on Soviet athletes’ use of anabolic steroids in the 1956 World Games in Moscow. During the 1960s and 1970s, sport governing bodies such as the International Amateur Athletic Federation and the International Olympic Committee banned specific drugs” (Allison et al., 2003, p. 2).
In 1976, amateur athletes were tested for prohibited substances at the Olympic Games in Montreal and again at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela; the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned anabolic steroids in 1973 and began random testing of student- athletes for performance-enhancing substances and recreational drugs in 1986. (Allison et al., 2003). Drug testing originally took place only at Division I football bowl games, and at some NCAA championships; however, since 1990, football players in Divisions I-A, I-AA, and II, as well as Division I indoor and outdoor track and field athletes, have been subject to drug testing all year long. Furthermore, Allison and his colleagues report that all NCAA student- athletes are subject to drug testing at NCAA championship events and at post-season bowl games (NCAA, 1998). Not surprisingly, the use of such drugs has attracted attention from those who would seek to gain a competitive edge over their peers as well as those who would attempt to discourage such usage. To better understand the rationale behind such efforts, the general effects of steroids are discussed further below.
Effects of Steroids.
The first known use of anabolic-androgenic steroids from the general public’s perspective was as a potential means to enhance performance in so-called “power” sports such as field events and weight lifting; the primary reason for use in any of these settings, tough, is the anabolic effect (Pederson & Wichstrom, 2001). While this effect has been difficult to document experimentally in humans, the general trend among clinicians has been to acknowledge the drug’s positive skeletal muscle-enhancing effect. Notwithstanding these advantages, though, Pederson and Wichstrom note that the use of anabolic-androgenic steroid has a wide range of adverse effects, including an increased risk of coronary heart disease, liver disease, testicular atrophy, prostate cancer, and breast enlargement in men and decrease in women; potential psychological side effects include decreased libido, increased aggression including homicide and suicide, affective and psychotic disorders (Pederson & Wichstrom, 2001).
Given these known hazards, what could possibly attract young people and professional athletes to their use? Further, there are some associated side effects that are a concomitant to steroid use that may affect some athletes more severely than their counterparts. For example, the use of anabolic-androgenic steroid has been thought to be addictive in some users; furthermore, users frequently use other illicit drugs and there is the risk for spread of hepatitis and HIV to originally low-risk populations through sharing needles in anabolic-androgenic steroids injection (Pederson & Wichstrom, 2001).
In addition, the use of anabolic-androgenic steroid during adolescence may cause premature closure of the growth plates over the bones, thereby causing a lifetime shorter stature; unfortunately, the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids has been found to mostly take place at some point during adolescence (Pederson & Wichstrom, 2001). Consequently, the prevention of anabolic-androgenic steroids use should be regarded as an urgent and important goal for physical education professionals and the American public as well. According to Pederson and Wichstrom, “The search for risk and protective factors for anabolic-androgenic steroids use in adolescence is vital” (Pederson & Wichstrom, 2001, p. 5). Unfortunately, many sports professionals may ignore or even encourage such use, even by young players. “Many athletes play for keeps,” Putnam reports, “even if it means using steroids and other unauthorized drugs to fight injuries and maintain their competitive edge. The use of performance-enhancing drugs often is tacitly condoned by coaches, doctors, team owners, and corporate sponsors” (p. 115). Given these alarming hazards, particularly for young athletes, an examination of the incidence of use is in order.
Incidence of Use.
According to Pederson and Wichstrom (2001), the incidence of lifetime use among United States high-school students varies between 4% and 12% for males and 0.5% and 2% for females; however, lower figures have been reported in other countries. For example, incidence rates vary between 1.2% and 3.2% for males and 0.2% and 2.0% for females in Australia, and one study found a fairly comparable rate over a 12-month period in Canada (4.1% in males and 1.5% in females). According to Pederson and Wichstrom, there are significant regional differences between steroid use throughout the United States, but there remains a paucity of scientific studies concerning use abroad that continues to constrain analyses (Pederson & Wichstrom, 2001).
Analysis of Legal Issues and Controversies and Reactions.
Because of the well-known dangers associated with its use, particularly for young people, the NCAA implemented a drug-testing program for steroid use that has been controversial since the outset; the source of this controversy are three-fold and are discussed further below.
1. Program Protocols. One source of controversy is based on the fact that in many cases, drug-testing program protocols provide for the random testing of athletes, even those who are not suspected of drug use. “This type of testing,” Allison and his associates report, “conducted without regard to evidence or suspicion of actual use, is increasingly being regarded as intrusive and in violation of athletes’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches” (p. 2). Over the years, the NCAA random drug-testing program has been challenged in the American courts with various results. For example, in the case, University of Colorado v. Derdeyn (1993), the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the rulings of lower courts that, “in the absence of voluntary consents, CU’s random, suspicionless urinalysis drug testing of student- athletes violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution” (University of Colorado v. Derdeyn, 1993, p. 930, cited in Allison et al., p. 3).
By contrast, in the case, Hill v. NCAA (1994), the California Supreme Court reversed lower courts by ruling in favor of the NCAA; the court’s rationale for the ruling in this case was based on the NCAA’s interest in fair competition and the health and safety of athletes as well as athletes’ acceptance of diminished privacy with regard to other aspects of participation (e.g., locker rooms, physical examinations) (Hill v. NCAA, 1994, cited in Allison et al., p. 3).
2. Specificity of Drug-Testing Programs. The second controversy associated with the NCAA drug-testing program concerns the specific drugs for which athletes are tested. According to Allison and his colleagues, the NCAA has responded to the increasing incidence of drug use by young athletes by testing for performance-enhancing substances (such as steroids and amphetamines), and for so-called recreational drugs (such as marijuana) (NCAA, 1998, cited in Allison et al., 2003). Because any type of drug can be harmful to athletes, supporters of testing for both performance-enhancing substances and recreational drugs maintain that doing so is necessary in order to safeguard athletes’ health. The opposing view is that athletes should be held accountable only for substances that would give them an unfair advantage over their competitors and that testing for substances other than those identified as performance-enhancing is both unnecessary and in violation of the privacy of the athletes (Allison et al., 2003).
3. Reliability of Testing Protocols. The final controversial issue associated with the NCAA’s drug-testing program concerns the reliability of test results; this is because some types of substances such as birth control pills can cause positive test results, thereby resulting in an athlete being prohibited from competition. Furthermore, inaccurate results can be caused by simple human errors that occur in the testing laboratories. While there are clinical protocols in place to prevent such errors, some athletes have cited these types of errors when they were tested positive for drugs. “Because of the damage rendered to athletes’ careers and reputations by positive drug tests, the specter of inaccurate test results, caused either by substances that are not prohibited or by human error, are of grave concern” (Allison et al., 2003, p. 3).
The research showed that the use of various performance-enhancing substances is not new, but the controversies associated with the use of anabolic steroids, particularly by young athletes, has assumed increasing importance in recent years. More and more studies have shown that the use of these substances typically begins during the formative adolescent years, a practice that can have lifelong consequences in terms of physical problems and growth constraints. Moreover, there are profound moral and legal issues involved in the use of such performance enhancers, and while many observers might question that legality of such testing programs at the high school and collegiate level, the high incidence of use in recent years clearly indicates that more needs to be at all levels to help prevent young athletes from beginning to use these substances, and to help those who have already started to stop.
Allison, P.C., Diacin, M.J., & Parks, J.B. (2003). Voices of male athletes on drug use, drug testing and the existing order in intercollegiate athletics. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26(1), 1.
Hill v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 865 P. 2d 633 (1994).
NCAA. (1998, November). NCAA drug-testing protocol, 1998-99. Overland Park, KS, in Allison, Diacin, & Parks, 2003, p. 3.
Pedersen, W., & Wichstrom, L. (2001). Use of anabolic-androgenic steroids in adolescence: Winning, looking good or being bad? Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 62(1), 5.
Putnam, D.T. (1999). Controversies of the sports world. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
University of Colorado v. Derdeyn, 863 P. 2d 929 (1993).
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