Governor’s task force a step in right direction

After further review

Doug McKenzie

In early April, all 12 of Greater Media’s newspapers published a comprehensive look at steroid use within local high schools.

The report detailed the types of steroids being used, as well as the dangers that steroid use presents to teenagers.

Several stories also dealt with the different perspectives on the prevalence of steroid use within our schools, from the points of view from athletic directors to coaches and the student-athletes themselves.

The response was similar from all three groups — something along the lines of “we know it’s out there, but we don’t think it’s a problem in our school.”

Unfortunately, the facts dispute that belief, and now acting Gov. Richard J. Codey wants to know just how big a problem steroids in our schools have become, and what needs to be done to police the abuse.

Codey recently signed a landmark executive order creating a task force, the Governor’s Task Force on Steroid Use and Prevention, to examine steroid use in high school, making New Jersey the first state to take a comprehensive approach to addressing the growing problem of steroid use among high school athletes.

“Sports teach about teamwork and fellowship, leadership and discipline, and good, clean competition,” Codey said. “Steroid use, however, is threatening this safe outlet. This is an emergent public health crisis, and New Jersey cannot and will not bury its head in the sand.

“We have a responsibility to help our schools and parents as they grapple with this alarming trend,” he continued. “To force school districts to make a decision on this on their own is unfair. They cannot and should not go it alone.”

During a press conference in Trenton, Codey cited many of the same studies reported in Greater Media’s steroid package, all of which point to an increase in usage across the board.

Last year, 3.4 percent of 12th-graders nationwide admitted to using anabolic steroids at least once, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). That’s up 67 percent since 1991. In addition, 2.4 percent of 10th-graders and 1.9 percent of eighth-graders said they have used anabolic steroids at least once, according to the NIDA.

Forty percent of 12th-graders described steroids as “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get, and fewer and fewer students believe steroids are bad for them. There is also an upsurge in steroid use among girls.

Codey’s task force includes doctors, some highly influential high school and college sports administrators from throughout the state, as well as Peter King, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and the magazine’s primary NFL expert.

Among some of the more familiar people on the task force are Monsignor Michael E. Kelly, the task force chairman, who has served as headmaster of Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange since 1980; Robert E. Mulcahy III, who has worked as the athletic director at Rutgers University since 1998; Wilbur Aikens, the athletic director for the Piscataway Public School District, the director of the Athletic Association of New Jersey, and a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Executive Committee; Robert W. Baly, the assistant director of NJSIAA; David G. Evans, the executive director of the Drug Free School Zones Coalition; and William L. Librera Ed.D, New Jersey’s commissioner of education.

The task force will be busy over the next few months preparing to develop a statewide steroid policy for high school athletes, and will deliver a report to Codey by Dec. 1.

As part of the process, the task force will hold public hearings and a summit to gather information on the physical and psychological effects of steroid use on teenagers; determine the extent of the problem among high school student-athletes in New Jersey; ascertain the feasibility, legality and prudence of implementing statewide mandatory steroid testing; develop a statewide steroid education program to be taught in New Jersey schools; determine the most appropriate academic setting, such as physical education or health class, in which to implement said educational program; and examine the effects and prevalence of other performance enhancers, such as nutritional supplements, and determining whether or not to include information on them in the proposed educational program.

That’s quite a lengthy list of objectives, but the findings that will get most athletes’ and administrators’ attention will be the part about mandatory steroid testing.

Everyone agrees that steroids are bad for you. And everyone agrees that we need to get and/or keep them out of our schools.

But not everyone agrees on mandatory drug testing as a means of doing so.

While a total of 11 school districts — including Brick Township — throughout the state have already begun randomly testing students for substance abuse, it remains a hot issue.

“I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to know if their child is abusing himself,” said Old Bridge’s High School’s longtime wrestling coach, Ken Scott. “I could never understand why testing could be considered such a negative thing.”

Shore Regional cross country and track and field coach Mel Ullmeyer agrees, noting that athletes should be anxious to put any doubts to rest.

“If a kid wants to be an athlete, he should be willing to be tested because if he’s an athlete, he shouldn’t be involved with that stuff in the first place,” he said.

But anytime someone’s right to privacy is in question, it becomes a complicated issue.

It will be interesting to see how much opposition presents itself once the governor’s task force examines the idea of mandatory testing.

Put in proper perspective, the health and well-being of our student-athletes, many of whom are facing pressure to succeed for the first time, should be a priority.

Let’s hope the governor’s task force is able to drive that point home.