In the wake of an unnerving tragedy, Don Hooton stood before a congressional committee to describe the death of his son Taylor, an athlete pressured to find an edge at all costs.
Eight years later, he says the disappointment of baseball’s latest scandal is a black cloud hovering over the bigger picture: teens experimenting with steroids.
On Monday, MLB suspended Alex Rodriguez for a record 211 games, a month after former MVP Ryan Braun accepted a season-ending suspension. Braun previously said he’d “bet his life that this substance never entered my body at any point.”
At the March 2005 hearing on Capitol Hill — one in which Major League Baseball players fervently denied their ties to performance-enhancing drugs in a made-for-TV spectacle — Hooton, along with the parents of former USC Trojan outfielder Rob Garibaldi, spoke on behalf of the growing steroid problem in young adults.
“Mark McGuire, when he came out of the room, teared up,” Hooton recalls. “I suspect it was because he listened to myself and the Garibaldis tell the story of how some people are following the lead of these role models.”
While professional athletes capture the headlines for their repeated failures, American teenagers continue to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs): More than 1 million kids have admitted to using PEDs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I can’t tell you how many people, younger guys and teenagers, who come to me after buying something or using something given to them in their gym by a trainer or coach, and they have no idea what it is but it works,” said Dr. David Marks, chief medical officer of InBalance Health, a testosterone replacement therapy clinic.
“Unfortunately, teenagers don’t think about the long-term consequences,” he added. “You add these chemicals into the mix and it could be dangerous.”
Studies have shown alarming trends in steroid use among teens. A 2012 University of Minnesota study found that nearly 6 percent of middle school athletes admitted to using steroids.
Hooton started the Taylor Hooton Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to educate youth on the dangers of anabolic steroid use, after coming to the realization that “adults are oblivious to how widespread the problem is.” The foundation has worked with professional athletes, including Alex Rodriguez, to put on educational clinics in the past. Hooton first met Rodriguez in 2009 when the Yankees slugger admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at a press conference in Tampa. Since then, the foundation has used Rodriguez to help spread its anti-steroid message to kids.
"Regardless of anything that’s said about Alex, he’s very good with an audience like that," Hooton said. "He’s helped us deliver some important messages to a whole lot of kids."
In the wake of MLB's decision to suspend Rodriguez, the foundation released a statement Monday announcing its intentions to terminate its relationship with the slugger.
“It is simply not acceptable for the foundation to be delivering positive education messages to kids in partnership with an athlete who has continued to use performance enhancing drugs in violation of the rules of Major League Baseball and in direct opposition to the lessons that we teach children,” said Neil Romano, the board’s chairman.
Earlier this year, with help from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society, the Taylor Hooton Foundation commissioned a study to find out how the American public perceived steroid use.
“We in this country get so focused on the shiny objects, in this case it’s the professional athletes,” Hooton said. “The whole challenge is getting the American public to recognize how many kids are doing this.”
The University of Massachusetts Boston study found that more than 60 percent of people believe that steroid use is a big problem for professional athletes, whereas only 19 percent of the public believe steroid use is a big problem among adolescents.
Now, with the PED problem once again in the spotlight, Hooton wants to press Congress just as lawmakers on Capitol Hill once threw fastball after fastball at MLB officials.
“Want to guess how much the federal government has done since those hearings? They’ve done absolutely nothing,” Hooton said. “Not even a brochure.”
The Taylor Hooton Foundation released a letter to Congress last week, asking for education on steroid use in schools and a government agency to oversee it.
No significant anti-steroid legislation has been passed in Congress since the 2005 hearings. In 2012, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehorse (D-R.I.) introduced the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act, which sought to give the Drug Enforcement Administration significant say over what is classified as an anabolic steroid. The bill stalled in committee. Similar acts passed in 1990 and 2004 increased the DEA’s authority to regulate anabolic steroids. There is no government-funded youth steroid education program to date.
In the years since the hearings, MLB has invested in educating youth on the subject of steroids and PEDs. It has also stepped up testing and lengthened bans for those caught doping.
Still, lawmakers asked MLB to further increase testing. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) wrote a letter to MLB commissioner Bud Selig and the MLB Players Association in 2011, urging MLB to step up its human growth hormone testing in the major leagues. It had previously only been tested for in the minor leagues. In 2013, MLB announced in-season blood tests for human growth hormone, as well as baseline testosterone readings for all players.
"Major League Baseball has always recognized the influence that our stars can have on the youth of America,” Selig told Congress in 2005. “We are concerned that recent revelations and allegations of steroid use have been sending a terrible message to young people."
For Marks, the best way to right the message to youth is not going to come from the government, but from the athletes themselves.
“Now you’re seeing guys like [Los Angles Dodgers outfielder] Matt Kemp saying, ‘I’m clean,’ and if those guys can stand up and really educate the youth, I think that will have more impact than some government bureaucrat or doctor because let’s face it, kids look up to those guys,” he said.