With the congressional hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball under way, some wonder how to fix the negative messages being sent to kids.
The congressional hearings on steroid use in professional baseball gave the oft-fractured discussion of performance-enhancing drugs in sports its first moment on the national stage last week. It was a critical moment not just for the players and Major League Baseball (MLB), but anyone with a vested interest in young athletes who might have been watching.
Not willing to cede the moment to Congress, a number of health and youth organizations sent messages to youngsters about the dangers of steroids. Others had been doing so as the scandals gained steam over the past year.
Leading the charge so far has been the very organization where many professional baseball players got their start: Little League. Lance Van Auken, senior communications executive at Little League Baseball and Softball, says his group released a statement last month in its 400,000-subscriber newsletter. "The dangers inherent in the use of anabolic steroids are well documented," the statement reads. "They may lead to further drug abuse, serious health problems, and death. Thus, the use of these performance-enhancing substances is completely contrary to the mission and ethics of Little League."
Van Auken hopes that the children will take away the message that baseball isn't and shouldn't be about doing whatever it takes to win. He says that while a majority of its members are in the 7-to-10-year-old divisions - and he stresses that his league has not seen any problems with steroids in the bulk of its divisions - the league also has an age group for 13- to 16-year-olds.
"When kids get older, parents tend to drift away," Van Auken says. "When they're 13 to 16, that's when you have to pay attention. They still need some parental guidance."
The National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) also released an official statement on March 7, which expressed the organization's concern with drugs.
"As healthcare professionals, NATA's members focus primarily on the health and well-being of the athletes and patients they serve. Therefore, due to the health risks associated with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, NATA can never justify their use to improve athletic performance," the statement reads.
"We felt it was important to make our position known," says Chuck Kimmel, president of NATA.
"We had a member testify last Thursday on general steroid issues, reflecting our official statement and talking about what things we think are important as Congress moves forward with whatever hearings they have," Kimmel says. "We want the public and the kids to understand the dangers of anabolic steroids and what the long-term danger is. We want to help deliver the message and be part of the force for positive change."
Impact on children
Adding to concerns that the current MLB imbroglio could influence children was the recent news that five students, including two minors, from a Madison, CT, school were charged with possession of steroids, which they allegedly purchased in Mexico.
The New York Times published an article on March 10 about a 19-year-old student caught surfing for steroids on the internet; that student later admitted to being a user. When told about the perils of steroids and why he should not use them, his parents summed up his response as: "But Barry Bonds does it." Nearly four weeks later, the student was dead after an apparent suicide, which the article speculated could have been a result of steroid withdrawal.
In calling the hearings that commenced last Thursday, members of Congress cited the impact the MLB accusations could have on children as its primary concern. Two members of the government reform committee, which is spearheading the hearings, went on television the Sunday before the hearings to discuss that rationale. "What we'd like baseball to do is admit they have a problem, show what they are doing to fix it, and make sure that we can set the record straight for young people. This is bad. This is bad for their health, and it's bad for the kids," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), the committee's chairman, on Meet the Press.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) added, "The most serious problem is that it permeates to our kids that using steroids to be better athletes is socially acceptable and they're under a competitive disadvantage if they don't do it. So if you look at the last 10 years, it used to be one out of every 45 kids uses steroids. Now, it's one out of 16. That's 500,000 kids that are using steroids. That's a real serious threat to their health."
Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates, who has extensive experience with athlete representation, says that children are seeing their heroes admit to drug use. He says this leads some kids to think, "This is the only way to make it to the pros."
Van Auken believes parents shouldn't assume that because their children are young they aren't aware of steroids. Hence, he urges them to talk to their children before someone else does. But he adds that he is unsure how many 9-year-olds would be actively watching the congressional hearings to begin with.
Some question whether sports fans will be watching the hearings at all. It happens that the congressional hearings coincide with the onset of the NCAA men's basketball championship, or "March Madness."
Dan Shanoff, the writer of ESPN.com's Daily Quickie, wondered on March 10 about the likelihood of eyes and ears following the proceedings.
"The biggest hurdle Congress faces in its showdown with MLB isn't players defying the subpoenas. Or legal pushback from a rare tag-team of MLB and its union. Or 'taking the fifth' and granting immunity. ... It's the NCAA Tournament," Shanoff wrote.
But some say that the baseball hearings and the NCAA tournament hardly attract the same audience anyway because the congressional hearing is a news story and March Madness is pure sports.
Effect on pro baseball
Regardless of whether anyone watches, the sports marketing professionals who spoke to PRWeek don't necessarily believe that the baseball season will be dampened by the hearings.
One sports marketing pro, who requested anonymity based on his relationship with several professional athletes, says that MLB should focus on promoting storylines around blossoming young talent, the existence of a number of teams that could challenge the current champions, and the heated rivalries inherent in the sport in the face of such negative publicity.
"I don't see this clouding the growth of baseball," the sports marketer says. "No doubt, MLB should be aggressive in showcasing the positive aspects of the sport."
But even with a proactive positive message from MLB, the dialogue on steroids and baseball will likely have a long shelf life - it's already been around for several seasons, slowly gaining momentum. This means organizations concerned with young athletes will continue to have opportunities to address the effect of steroids on young bodies and minds.
It won't be easy to counter images of baseball heroes admitting that steroid use pumped up their biceps and their stats, but with a little help from MLB itself, the game might not yet be over.