What are you telling your kids about steroids?
Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD
My good friend, Kenny, is a stout Auburn fan. It may be his only real flaw. I don't catch him completely flatfooted like this, so it was truly fun.
I called Kenny Saturday out of the blue. As soon as he was on the phone, in as serious a voice as I could muster, I started in on the setup: "Kenny, I knew it was just a matter of time until Tubberville got you guys in trouble. Have you heard any sports news this weekend? The story is everywhere."
"No? what's going on?" I could tell by Kenny's response that he was falling for this. I was elated.
"There is a steroid scandal on the Auburn campus. It's pretty far-reaching, and the investigation is going deep," I piled on.
"I haven't heard a thing yet," Kenny replied in such a serious tone that I knew he was taking the bait. He was ready for the punch line.
"You know that eagle you guys have? It's really a hummingbird."
A few milliseconds later, he realized he'd been had. He should have suspected such from me, as these barbs characterize much of our conversation.
Mark Twain said that truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction at least has to be plausible. What made the premise of this joke plausible is that steroids are serious drugs, and they have been in the news so much recently that you cannot channel-surf without hearing about it. Professional baseball has yet another black eye.
Indeed, Congress diverted time, resources, and personnel to talk about alleged steroid use in professional baseball recently. It is a good thing that the war on terror, illegal immigration, and the woes of the economy have all been solved so that Congress had the time to invest in professional sports.
Not long ago, I went to talk to ninth graders about illegal drug use. Following the presentation, I asked them to take out a scrap of paper and write an "N" on it if they had never used the drugs we'd talked about. I asked them to leave the paper blank if they had used the substances. Just over 1 in 4 of the ninth graders indicated that they were already using illegal drugs.
National surveys suggest that 6.1% of children have used either oral or injected steroids without a doctor's prescription at least once (Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). That is 1 in 16. That means almost two teens in each classroom. Does that get your attention? Almost no high school sports programs test for steroid use, so the likelihood of getting caught is not perceived as a danger to some users.
The pressure is on to be the biggest, fastest, best athlete among those who compete in sports. Student athletes who win are praised, given favorable treatment, and have social rewards (dates!) as a result of demonstrated prowess.
I am leading up to a question for parents: What are you telling your kids about steroids? If your child is an athlete, or works out to increase muscle mass or strength, or even plays sand-lot football, your child may be under some pressure to try this pharmacological short-cut to chiseled, rippling muscles.
Don't think for a minute that these drugs are not in Spalding and surrounding counties, so you should consider talking to your kids just as you would about any other danger they may face. Here are some pointers and talking points:
Steroids will not make you a better athlete. They may add muscle, but they do not change neuromuscular factors such as reaction time, eye-to-hand coordination, balance, or speed. In fact, added muscle could slow an athlete down by making one muscle-bound.
Steroid use is cheating. It gives a chemical advantage, or perceived advantage, to someone over the non-user. This is no less cheating than starting a race from an advanced position on a track.
Steroids can kill you when misused. If you are old enough to be a parent, you may recall the pitiful and poignant picture of the once great Lyle Alzedo, a terror of a defensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders, who used steroids to give him the bulging muscles for which he was famous. The steroids also compromised his immune system so severely that he died of the brain cancer that robbed him of the control of his well-tuned body until it wasted away. He warned us not to do what he did before he lost coherence. It was in no way worth his sacrifice.
There are side effects of steroids that can be irreversible, and may be embarrassing. Boys may grow breast tissue, while girls may become masculine in appearance. Fertility problems are known to occur. There is toxicity to the liver, inhibition of growth, and even steroid-related diabetes to consider.
How do you approach your child about such an issue? First, it will be easier if you have talked to your child about other things as well. Does your student athlete see you as a safe sounding board? If not, talking about serious topics like this might fall into a long-range plan. Start the conversation?anywhere?and keep it flowing so you both feel comfortable talking about anything.
Be yourself. If you had an experience with drugs when you were a teen, there may be some value in sharing your mistake with your child and what you learned from it. Your kids will know if you are not telling the truth, anyway.
Ask your budding star how the workout is going. Ask if he or she is taking any nutritional supplements to help performance. It might be a good idea to research these first so that you can be conversant. This will not only facilitate communication, but it will also shock your child that you are so knowledgeable.
You might approach the subject of steroids by saying that some students are tempted to use these very dangerous drugs, to cheat by using them, and to risk the side effects for short-term gains. Ask your child if they have seen anyone using these "performance enhancers" at school or at the gym.
Watch your child and his or her friends. Notice if they rapidly develop bulking muscles, appear nervous or hyped up, or display mood swings or personality changes. Take note of the number of hours spent in the gym or working out. There is a line between being a focused, dedicated athlete and being obsessed. If you see these warning signs, have a chat with your child.
If you have knowledge of someone else's child using steroids illegally, try to warn the parents. Once past the denial, they will have reason to thank you.
Back to the poor hummingbird at the beginning of this discussion, the story is about a hummingbird who wished to be an eagle. Shortcuts like steroids are more likely to make you a buzzard, or perhaps a looney bird.