Steroids testing hits next series of hurdles

If Crist approves bill, FHSAA has plenty of issues to iron out before the first test.

Published May 27, 2007

In most circumstances, the legislative process wouldn't be a thrill-seeker's first stop for an adrenaline fix. But after four years of trying and a surprise last-minute amendment proposal that momentarily overshadowed the intent of the bill, the state Legislature's approval of a steroid-testing program for high school athletes this month managed to deliver its fair share of heart-pounding excitement.

Now comes even more fun: implementing it.

Although Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign the bill once his office receives it from the Legislature, he has 15 days to make a decision, several issues must be resolved before the first urine sample of the one-year pilot program is collected.

Florida faces many challenges in becoming just the second state (after New Jersey) to test high school athletes for steroids. Among them: the program's price tag, potential legal challenges, the complicated process of organizing and administering the tests, and philosophical issues involving drug-testing.

"We need to get started right away, of course, " said John Stewart, commissioner of the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Stewart, whose organization will conduct the tests, said his office has not formulated a concrete strategy for administering the program. Before it does, the FHSAA plans to meet with Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami, who sponsored the bill, which was approved only after an amendment proposing a public/private school split in the FHSAA was rejected.

One of the key topics will be the potential for legal challenges. Llorente's bill implements testing in three sports: football, baseball and weightlifting. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has okayed the random testing of high school athletes, the fact that Florida is singling out predominantly male sports could leave open the possibility of a discrimination suit.

"We've heard that from legal sources, yes, " Stewart said.

Cost is another issue. The bill calls for as much as 1 percent of all high school athletes to be tested. The program will be funded by a $100, 000 appropriation in the state budget.

The FHSAA has informed the governor's office that it will pay all administrative expenses out of its budget, meaning the entire appropriation will be spent on the actual tests. But how far will that $100, 000 stretch?

Polk County, which instituted a testing program in 2005, pays $105 per test. At that rate, Florida could afford to test 952 athletes. According to participation figures gathered by the FHSAA, 214, 274 athletes played high school sports (58, 913 in the three sports targeted for testing) in the 2005-06 season, though that does not take into consideration athletes who played more than one sport.

Stewart said several drug-testing companies have expressed interest in submitting bids, which could reduce the per-test cost. But the FHSAA is not accepting bids until it meets with Llorente.

Questions remain about the privacy of the athletes tested, as well as the effectiveness of testing as a deterrent.

Many around the state think the money would be better spent on education, including Jamie Blosser, a program coordinator for an educational drug prevention/health promotion, "Atlas and Athena."

"My personal feeling is if you are going to pour money into something that is supposed to be preventative, why not put it into educating the athletes?" Blosser said.

Llorente, an infielder at Tulane in the mid 1990s who has pushed for steroid testing for four years, is confident the program will be a success.

"Obviously this is a one-year pilot program, " he said. "One of the major goals of the one-year pilot is to make sure we get the logistics right as far as implementing something more permanent in the future."

Times staff writer Izzy Gould contributed to this report. David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.