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Drug Testing Athletes Misses Mark

Now that the Supreme Court has said high school athletes have to submit to random drug tests, maybe their coaches, athletic directors, principals and parents should be next.

It would have to be voluntary, of course. In this country right now, only two classes of people can be compelled to take drug tests on demand: prisoners and student-athletes.

But that small oversight shouldn’t stop coaches from lining up behind their ballplayers to be tested every time their number comes up. The athletic directors could get in line behind them, then the principal and then the parents until everyone who thinks this is such a good idea - Supreme Court justices included - had taken their fair turn. Again and again.

After all, setting a good example was at the heart of the majority opinion that resulted in Monday’s 6-3 vote by the nation’s highest court. Anyone who thinks otherwise should remember what Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

“It seems to us self-evident that a drug problem largely fueled by the ‘role model’ effect of athletes’ drug use, and of particular danger to athletes, is effectively addressed by making sure that athletes do not use drugs.”

Much is made of the message supposedly sent when Roy Tarpley or Steve Howe or most recently, Darryl Strawberry, returns to his sport, to new riches and fame, after yet one more questionable stab at rehab. And perhaps more should have been made of that unsavory week only last month when Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, former Michigan football coach Gary Moeller and Seattle Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson reminded us that the men in charge are no less fallible than their charges. Each made headlines for separate incidents, all fueled by too much alcohol.

Unfortunately, there’s never a shortage of cautionary tales to force-feed today’s kids. Fortunately, they’re at least as smart and perceptive as the people who relay those tales. They don’t buy into the harangue, “Do as I say, not as I do,” any more than any preceding generation did.

And yet, because the world seems to be spinning ever faster somehow, today’s adults refuse to credit them with knowing even that much. Too often, grownups confuse modeling with role-modeling, believing that the way a kid dresses dictates the way he behaves.

Most kids dress according to what they see people wear on TV. But the way they behave has much more to do with what they learn from the people who reside much closer to their homes: parents, teachers, coaches. If there is indeed an epidemic out there, it surely isn’t limited to high school athletes.

And yet, that’s precisely what makes this Supreme Court decision so troubling. It shows kids that their parents and teachers and coaches are panicked, saying one thing and doing another. It shows them willing to sacrifice a long-held principle - the presumption of innocence, at least as it applies to kids - for a very shortterm, very limited gain. In the same opinion where he cited the “‘role model’ effect,” even Justice Scalia made clear the court did not believe in “suspicionless drug testing” for all high school students.

The case that spurred the ruling involved a school board in a small Oregon town trying to deal with what surely felt like an emergency. Now, it’s the law of the land. Now, every student-athlete is essentially guilty until proven innocent by a drug test. Now, despite the dollars the privacy issue involves, some school boards no doubt will rush into areas where they once feared to tread.

Even under the best of circumstances, drug testing is not without problems. A model program at HomewoodFlossmoor High, in a well-to-do stretch of south suburban Chicago, takes great pains to protect student-athletes’ confidentiality. It is paid for by contributions and gate receipts from athletic contests, and even includes random steroid testing.

When it went into effect in 1990 at the suggestion of football coach John Wrenn, surveys revealed overwhelming support from both students and parents and some school administrators and staff volunteered to be tested at random.

“I guess most of the concerns we’ve heard are from parents who said we you’re targeting the wrong group,” school spokeswoman Jayne Matthews said Wednesday afternoon. “But our feeling is that if we can help any groups, we should.”

A moment later, she added, “We got hundreds of requests for information the first year or two after we started. We’ve had almost as many this week.”

There must be better ways to spend all that money.

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