By Gregory B. Hladky
10:30 AM EDT, July 31, 2013
Brian Cunningham says no one asked him where he got the 200 doses of illegal steroids found in his Southington High School locker back in April. Nor did anyone ask the 18-year-old who among his friends or teammates might also be doping.
Not the cops, not school officials. One Southington High administrator told a reporter he believed Cunningham, a defensive end on the Blue Knights varsity football team for two years, was an isolated case.
None of which comes as any surprise to Don Hooton.
"They don't want to know… And that's very, very typical," says Hooton, president of a foundation dedicated to educating kids, parents and educators about the dangers of steroids.
"Athletic directors and other school officials want to believe, and they want the public to believe, that it's just one rogue kid," says Hooton. "It's naive and irresponsible. Until you understand you have a problem, how are you going to marshal the resources to deal with it?"
Very few Americans do understand. A recent Gallup poll found less than 20 percent of adults surveyed believe teenage steroid abuse to be a major problem.
High-profile cases of doping among top athletes like Major League Baseball's Ryan Braun or cycling's Lance Armstrong have convinced 63 percent of those surveyed by Gallup that steroid abuse is serious in professional sports. But that awareness clearly hasn't trickled down to provide an understanding of the steroid dangers facing college and high school kids.
Connecticut state officials routinely commission surveys of teens to help find out what health issues need attention. Except those studies don't even ask about steroids. "We don't have an accurate idea of what the [steroid] landscape is here," admits Rachel Bruno, senior program coordinator for the Governor's Prevention Partnership.
National polls indicate that something like 1.5 million American teens may be doping on anabolic steroids, with millions more using often-unregulated "nutritional supplements" or synthetic drugs promising help in body sculpting.
More than 20 percent of products sold over the counter at nutrition stores "are contaminated with some form of banned substances, including steroids," Hooton points out. "The numbers are staggering."
Hooton has a terrible, personal understanding of what steroids can do to a person. His son Taylor started using anabolic steroids at age 17.
The Texas high school baseball pitcher gained 30 pounds, pounded the floor during rage episodes, stole money from his parents, suffered severe acne down his back, and became depressed after coming off the drug. In July 2003, Taylor hanged himself.
The tragedy was widely publicized, and the Taylor Hooton Foundation has been working ever since to convince people how dangerous steroids can be.
Most people probably already know about the abrupt mood swings and 'roid rage that steroids can trigger. But that's only the beginning.
How about "testicular shrinkage," reduced sperm count, impotence, balding, and enlarged prostates for guys? Girls can see facial hair growth and find they have deeper, more man-like voices, "enlargement of genitals, and reduction in breast size."
If that's not enough, scientists say steroid abuse can also cause stunted growth in teens by forcing puberty changes and making the skeleton mature sooner than normal; trigger high blood pressure, jaundice, and severe acne; and damage fertility.
Last November, a study published in the magazine Pediatrics indicated just how widespread the teen steroid epidemic really is.
The report by researchers at the University of Minnesota surveyed nearly 2,800 teenagers. The average age of those kids was 14.
Nearly six percent of the boys and 4.6 percent of the girls admitted using steroids. Another 5-10 percent of all teens said they used creatine or other body-building protein products.
One of the more disturbing trends, according to Hooton, is that more teenage girls now appear to be using steroids. Their goal isn't to add weight and muscle – which is what teen boys usually take 'roids for. Most girls are believed to be trying to tone their bodies to improve their appearance.
"This is not just limited to the starting linemen on your high school football team," insists Hooton. "It's a widespread social behavior among our kids."
That Gallup poll on attitudes toward teen steroid use was released this past May. It was commissioned by the Taylor Hooton Foundation and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The survey of more than 1,000 American adults found that steroid abuse was considered less of a problem for teens than marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, eating disorders and bullying.
Those are also the sorts of problems identified by state health and education officials, according to Bruno. "We're not seeing [steroid abuse issues] in vast numbers like underage drinking, binge drinking, prescription drug abuse and marijuana use," she says.
Hooton says he gives talks to lots of high school coaches and officials, most of whom believe they don't really have much of a steroid abuse problem. He always asks them to come up and explain "how this epidemic has missed your school [because] it's going on everywhere."
Brian Cunningham, who graduated from Southington High this year, doesn't want to talk about where he got his steroids or about friends who were also using.
Yes, the steroids helped him build up his body as he'd hoped. Yes, he remembers mood swings and periods of anger. "I knew it was that," Cunningham says. "It was a little scary."
No, he didn't use steroids to help him with his high school sports career. "It wasn't for football at all," Cunningham insists. "It was after football… It was just to try it out."
Cunningham's brush with the law is not likely to have any lasting consequences. He says he was granted "accelerated rehabilitation," a program that will allow his arrest and the charges to be wiped from his record if he completes his court-ordered probation. (The court records have already been sealed.) "I have to do a couple of community service hours and that's about it," he shrugs.
"It was a simple mistake," Cunningham adds, saying his advice to other teens would be simply, "Don't do it."
The trouble is, solving the broader problem of teenage steroid abuse doesn't seem simple at all.
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