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Steroid testing clears next hurdle

Thursday, May 4, 2006

New Jersey's high school athletes would be benched unless they and their parents agree before the season to be tested for performance-enhancing drugs under a proposal introduced Wednesday.

The policy, developed by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, in response to a December order from then-Gov. Richard J. Codey, would go into effect for the 2006-07 season.

Under the policy -- which got unanimous preliminary approval from NJSIAA's executive committee -- athletes and their parents would be required to sign consent forms before their seasons, agreeing to random testing for steroids and numerous other performance-enhancing drugs. Those who don't sign the form would be ineligible to play.

The policy will go into effect for the fall season if the executive committee approves it a second time at its next meeting, June 7.

"New Jersey is going to be the first state in the union to do random testing for steroids," said Bob Baly, an assistant director of the NJSIAA. "We are happy this is in place."

Under the policy, students who qualify for individual state tournaments or as a member of a state tournament team could be tested randomly for steroids and an extensive list of other substances once a tournament begins. Any athlete who tests positive or refuses to take the test would not be able to participate in sports for one year from the date of the test.

School drug tests of any kind have consistently met with resistance, particularly from parents who argue that they violate students' civil rights.

Charles Earling, the principal of Collingswood High School and a member of a task force appointed by Codey to consider steroid testing in schools, said in December that only 20 school districts in New Jersey currently test for illegal drugs, much less performance enhancers.

"Anybody can challenge anything," said Steve Goodell, an attorney for the NJSIAA who helped draft the new policy. "But there is no constitutional right to participate in high school sports."

"We haven't advertised this to parents," Baly said. "In preliminary discussions, people have seemed positive about it. Do I expect opposition? No, I don't."

On its surface, the policy appears to target only those athletes who are successful as individuals or members of successful teams, while allowing athletes on less successful teams to avoid the testing. But Baly said it is still more than is being done now.

"Don't you have that right now," he asked when the subject of non-qualifiers getting a pass on the testing came up. "Besides, I don't think kids think like that. I know that when I was coaching, the idea at the beginning of every season was that we were going to get to the state championship."

Codey, in his executive order, promised $50,000 per year in state funds to help pay for the testing. Baly said the NJSIAA has set aside another $50,000 in next year's budget for testing. Officials had discussed getting corporate sponsors to pick up the balance, although he would not estimate how much that might be.

"We've been talking about corporate sponsorship," Baly said. "But they're not exactly lining up for this."

Athletes selected randomly would be asked to supply a urine sample following any state tournament event, emulating a process used by the NCAA and in the Olympics. Sixty percent of the tests would be performed in football, wrestling, track and field, swimming, lacrosse and baseball, sports that Baly described as high-risk sports for steroid use.

Besides having to sit out one calendar year, athletes who test positive also would be forced to forfeit individual honors, such as a district wrestling championship or a state medal in track. Team honors, such as a state football championship, would not be affected by a positive test.

"The feeling was that schools could not be expected to know if an athlete is using steroids unless they implement their own testing program, which is cost-prohibitive," Baly said. "Therefore, the team should not be punished for the actions of one player."

Athletes who test positive can appeal the results to a special committee of the NJSIAA. If they are unsuccessful, they can bring that appeal to the commissioner of Education for public schools and the Superior Court of New Jersey for non-public schools.