AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When Texas officials launched a massive
public high school steroids testing program over fears of rampant
doping from the football fields to the tennis courts, they promised
a model program for the rest of the country to follow.
But almost no one did. And after spending $10 million testing
more than 63,000 students to catch just a handful of cheaters,
Texas lawmakers appear likely to defund the program this summer. If
they do, New Jersey and Illinois will have the only statewide high
school steroids testing programs left.
Even those who pushed for the Texas program in 2007 now call it
a colossal misfire, either a waste of money or too poorly designed
to catch the drug users some insist are slipping through the
“I believe we made a huge mistake,” said Don Hooton, who started
the Taylor Hooton Foundation for steroid abuse education after his
17-year-old son’s 2003 suicide was linked to the drug’s use, and
was one of the key advocates in creating the Texas program.
Hooton believes the low number of positive tests doesn’t mean
Texas athletes are clean, only that they’re not getting caught
because of inadequate testing and loopholes that allow them to
cheat the process.
“Coaches, schools, and politicians have used the abysmal number
of positive tests to prove there’s no steroid problem,” Hooton
said. “What did we do here? We just lulled the public to
Texas wasn’t the first state to test high schoolers. New Jersey
and Florida were first and Illinois started about the same time as
Texas. But the Lone Star State employed its typical
bigger-is-better swagger by pumping in millions to sweep the state
for cheaters. At the time, Texas had more than 780,000 public high
school athletes, by far the most in the nation. A positive test
would kick the star quarterback or point guard out of the lineup
for at least 30 days.
Schools across the country closely watched Texas, said Don
Colgate, director of sports and sports medicine at the National
Federation of State High School Associations.
“Texas was going out in front in a big way,” Colgate said.
“(But) it’s not a cheap process and they knew there were not going
to do it on the scale of what Texas did.”
New Jersey and Illinois each spends about $100,000 annually
testing a few hundred athletes. Florida folded its $100,000 program
There were questions from the start whether Texas should go so
The University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing
body for high school sports, surveyed its member public schools in
2002 and the vast majority said testing should be a local decision.
By 2007, headlines of performance-enhancing drug abuse in
professional sports and a push from advocates like Hooton prodded
lawmakers to forge ahead and they pumped in $6 million for the
first two years.
Texas hired Drug Free Sport, which conducts testing for the
NCAA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, to randomly
select students, pull them out of class and have them supply a
urine sample. The first 19,000 tests produced just nine confirmed
cases of steroid use, with another 60 “protocol violations” for
skipping the test.
Few saw those numbers as good news of clean athletes or even as
proof the program could be a successful deterrent. Most saw it as
fodder for criticism that the state was wasting its money.
And national momentum was ebbing. The economic downturn pinched
state budgets. Other health issues, including heat-related deaths
and head safety, jumped to the forefront.
Anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin, who spent years conducting the
NCAA’s laboratory tests at UCLA, said the Texas plan was
well-intentioned but didn’t test for enough drugs in the early
years and had gaps in protocols that cheaters could exploit. Texas
tested for only about 10 drugs in the first wave, a fraction of the
anabolic agents on the market, which Catlin warned would be easy to
Testers also can lose the element of surprise because they have
to tell school officials when they’ll be on campus. While that is
supposed to be confidential, the news can slip out and UIL has
punished schools for violations.
Although students are required to empty their pockets and lift
shirts above their waste band, testing officials also aren’t
allowed to physically watch the person providing a urine sample.
Privacy for under-age athletes is a potentially huge loophole for
The testing protocols, including which drugs were tested for,
were developed by the UIL and Drug Free Sport.
“The program they developed was bound to fail,” Catlin said. “I
told them years ago to put the money into something else.”
State lawmakers have been scaling down the Texas program almost
since it began.
It was trimmed to $2 million by 2010 and has continued to shrink
to about $500,000 a year. That required testing fewer athletes and
targeting specific sports such as football, wrestling and
UIL Athletic Director Mark Cousins said Texas now targets about
60 drugs but the number of positive tests still remains low. In the
2013-2014 school year, the UIL tested 2,633 students and caught
Hooton said those low figures don’t match anecdotal evidence of
higher steroid use among teens. A 2014 study by the Partnership for
Drug-Free Kids found that 7 percent of high schoolers reported
using steroids from 2009-2013.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews state
programs, recommended in 2014 that lawmakers drop the program. The
commission’s report noted that unless the state wanted to pump up
to $5 million a year into a program on par with elite college and
pro leagues, it wouldn’t be effective either in catching cheaters
or scaring them away from drugs.
Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that exposed
performance-enhancing drug use by former cyclist Lance Armstrong,
scoffed at Texas for moving to eliminate its program. He noted
Texas cities have been willing to pay millions for state-of-the-art
high school football facilities.
“They’re willing to spend ($60) million building one high school
football stadium but can’t find a fraction of that to protect the
health and safety of young athletes? Come on,” Tygart said. “It’s a