N.J. to drug test school athletes

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) – New Jersey high school athletes seeking to hoist championship trophies next year may also have to hold an altogether different kind of cup starting this fall.

The Garden State is set to become the first in the nation to institute a drug-testing policy for high school athletes.

Created to test for performance-enhancing drugs, the program will likely screen random athletes for about 80 banned substances ranging from amphetamines to steroids. Public and private school students competing in championship games, either individually or as part of teams, will be subject to the tests.

The state’s school athletic association gave preliminary approval to the plan earlier this week and is slated to make a final decision June 7. The organization estimates that about 500 of the 10,000 students competing in state tournaments each year will be tested.

“It’s the right thing to do, because taking steroids would be cheating. And 10 years down the road it would cause harm to your health. And as a teenager, you don’t think of your health,” said state Sen. Richard J. Codey, who pushed the plan while serving as governor last year.

Students who do not agree to the testing will not be allowed to compete.

The program is being created as San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds continues to face lingering questions about steroids while he attempts to pass Babe Ruth’s home run mark. Codey said steroid problems were made clear to him when his two sons – one who plays high school basketball and the other who plays college basketball – told him they knew of students using performance enhancers.

Athletes use steroids to boost muscle mass and enhance athleticism, but they can also lead to heart attacks, strokes, cancer, sterility and mood swings.

The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that 6.1 percent of U.S. high school students in 2003 took steroids without a doctor’s prescription at least once. A similar New Jersey survey that year found that 3.1 percent of the state’s public high school students had tried steroids at least once.

Across the country, the use of performance-enhancing drugs seems to be growing in areas where athletic programs are highly competitive, said Gary Makowicki, an athletic director at a Norwich, Conn., school who serves as executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association.

New Jersey’s testing program would help raise awareness about the extent of the problem, said Makowicki, who thought it might also reduce peer pressure on athletes.

At Hopatcong High School, about 40 miles west of Manhattan, athletic director Tom Vara said he doesn’t think steroids are an overriding problem for student athletes. “But we need to be proactive about it before it gets worse,” he said.

At least two other states, including California and Florida, have considered statewide testing requirements for athletes, but have not yet opted for such programs.

Key points of New Jersey’s preliminary plan:

-Those who test positive or refuse to be tested will be ineligible for a year.

-Students can appeal suspensions to a school athletic association committee. Further appeals from public school students would be heard by the state’s education chief, while appeals from private school students would go to state courts.

Codey said the state would provide $50,000 to help cover the cost of testing. The state school athletic association said it would provide an additional $50,000.

The testing program has sparked some opposition from civil libertarians, who worry that parental rights are being undermined.

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