For Sunday release

Between George Mitchell's report documenting steroid abuse in Major League Baseball and the hearings Congress has scheduled for this week, the airwaves are again filled with condemnation of professional athletes, supposedly delivered in defense of amateur athletes. But an important point is being missed, again.


In their news conferences Thursday, Mitchell and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig agreed that the introduction of random testing in 2003 had dramatically reduced the amount of steroid use by Major League players.


Both also noted that use of steroids by high school athletes appears to have declined in the past years, with Mitchell noting that between 3 and 6 percent of high school students abuse steroids. The implication is that, by cleaning up its act, Major League Baseball is having a salutary effect on young athletes.


But even 3 percent translates to thousands of teenagers, of whom few have any chance of success as professional athletes. These young people are still doing terrible damage to their bodies in pursuit of playing time, athletic scholarships, the admiration of their peers and the dream of making it to the big leagues.


If we were serious about stopping student athletes from using steroids, we wouldn't just preach at them and we wouldn't just discipline professional athletes for being bad role models. We would do exactly what we do for the Major Leaguers: Test them for steroids and bench them if the test comes up positive.


Yet few high schools test their athletes. The MIAA, which regulates school sports in Massachusetts, doesn't require it, and coaches complain that it's too expensive.


Teen athletes are at least as susceptible to the lure of performance-enhancing drugs as adults. The pressure for short-term success can be intense, and adolescents are less capable of grasping long-term risks than adults.


But student athletes are also more likely to respond to a testing-and-benching system than professionals. They don't have a union to protect and enable them. They don't have access to sophisticated drugs that evade standard tests. And losing playing time for failing a drug test is a consequence student athletes can understand.


Major League players, executives and fans overstate the importance of role models in steroid abuse. If every Major Leaguer was clean as the driven snow, a high school football player with glory and scholarships on the line would still be tempted to bulk up with chemicals.


If politicians want to do something for young athletes, they should come up with some money for simple drug-testing kits and put a few in the office of every high school athletic director.