In the wake of Starling Marte‘s suspension for PED use, we talked to experts about the impact of this news on young Pittsburgh Pirates fans.

I pulled up in front of my son’s middle school at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday to pick him up after track practice. He had a perplexed look on his face.

“What happened to Marte?” he asked.

Since I write about the Pittsburgh Pirates, I’m used to being the de facto source for Buccos news for friends and family. But this question was different.

“He was suspended for 80-games because they found out he took PEDs,” I said. My text message to my husband earlier was more direct.

“Marte popped for ‘roids.”

“No, I mean, what happened to him?” my son asked, strongly emphasizing the word ‘happened’.

“Why’d he cheat? He’s such a great guy – why would he do something so dirty?”

It’s a question on a lot of our minds this week. As adults, we’ve seen this happen before and we have enough life experience under our belts to know that the world is comprised of a lot more grey than stark black and white. But it’s different for kids who are prone to put celebrities and professional athletes on a pedestal.

A Golden Opportunity

“Of course we hate to see anyone fall, but when our kids’ heroes fall, we get really lucky as parents because now we get to talk to them about bad behavior in an empathetic way when they’re not in trouble and neither are their friends,” said Deborah Gilboa MD, a board certified attending family physician at Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill Health Center and parenting and youth development expert.

When our children themselves, or their friends, make poor decisions, parents messsages regarding their choices have to cut through the kids’ feelings of judgement and shame. So it’s harder for the message to get through. But, she said, “When someone that we admire and they admire messes up, it gives us an entree’ into a conversation where none of us are at fault.”

So how do you start?

Dr. Gilboa suggests that before starting a conversation with your child, do a gut-check and determine what your opinions are about the subject. The goal is to initiate a conversation with your child in which you transfer certain values onto them, so know where you stand before you dive in. And don’t forget, kids hear everything and remember everything, so be ready to explain things they may have heard you say or seen you do related to the topic.

Start with a Pre-test

Dr. Gilboa recommends starting with a pre-test. “Just like our kids at school get a pre-test for spelling to figure out what list they should be on, when we talk to our kids about any difficult topic, it really benefits them if we don’t start by talking, we start by asking and listening,” she said. The pre-test gives you an idea of what they know, what they don’t and their general level of understanding of the subject.

Your pre-test question is simple: Did you hear about what happened to Starling Marte?

If they did, follow with: And what do you think about it?

If they haven’t heard, give them a one-sentence, totally factual summary of the situation, Dr. Gilboa said.

Your summary: Starling Marte got an 80-game suspension because it turns out he was using performance enhancing drugs.

Once they’ve absorbed that, follow by asking what they think about it.

“This pre-test lets them give us a window into their own values and beliefs about this topic, whatever this topic is,” she said. “This lets us know how not to preach to the choir but, if you’ll give me a sports analogy, move the ball down the field.”

Acknowledge Their Emotions and Reiterate Your Values

Once parents know what their child thinks about the news, it’s time to discuss the actions. “It’s important for parents to show empathy for their child’s emotions,” Dr. Gilboa said.

This can be done two ways. Commenting on what their child is saying – ‘I hear in your voice that you’re frustrated or maybe feel betrayed’…Or by expressing their own feelings about the situation – ‘I feel betrayed about this, I feel angry. I admired his skills and now I feel like this takes it all away.’

It is important to continue placing the accountability where it belongs, she said. “He made this choice, even if he was pressured…whatever the situation, he still had a choice to make and he made a really bad choice,” she added. This ensures your child firmly understands where you stand on the issue.

Discussing consequences is also a good way to understand how a child feels about a subject and reinforce the idea of paying for your actions.

Emphasize Empathy

If your child has ever seen you boo Ryan Braun when he faces the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, or heard you say “A-Roid” instead of “A-Rod” they may already know where you stand on the use of PEDs. However, she stressed that its important regardless to show your children that there is a way for a person who has made a bad choice to recover.

“We have to say, ‘He’s a person and he may have burnt his bridge, he may have lost his opportunity to be a professional baseball player, but he is still a man in his community and if we leave him with no opportunity to reconcile back into the community then we marginalize him,'” she said. This is vital to reassure your child that if they make a bad choice in the future, you believe that there is a chance for redemption.

Dr. Gilboa stressed that it is not the parents’ responsibility to know the “whys” about the situation. Speculating on the possible reasons a person would make the choice to take performance enhancing drugs though could help drive the conversation in a very important direction.

“If your child is an athlete, you might even ask them, ‘What do you think you would do if you were under similar pressure?’ It helps you build both empathy and expectations,” she said.

Address the Dangers

If your child responds that they think they could handle the pressure and resist PEDs, it opens the door for a reality check about the dangers of these drugs.

“You get the chance as a parent to tell them, ‘I want you to come to me if you’re ever feeling that kind of pressure because as dangerous as this was for Marte, it would be quadruple dangerous for you to do this because your still growing body and your brain are much more susceptible to these damaging effects…So if you ever feel like doing this or pressure to do this, let’s talk about it because this is super dangerous stuff.'”

It is a conversation Don Hooten Sr. wishes he could have had with his son, Taylor. Taylor was just 17, and a high school athlete, when he committed suicide after using anabolic steroids. Don and his wife, Gwen, discovered after Taylor’s death that use of performance enhancing drugs is not relegated to pro-sports, but is prevalent in high schools across the country as well.

“As parents, the first and most important thing we need to do is recognize that this is a widespread problem among our youth – it’s not just the professional athletes and it’s not just the boys,” he said.

Not Just a Pro Thing

Don founded the Taylor Hooten Foundation in 2004, following his son’s death, to educate youth and their adult “influencers” about the dangers of appearance and performance enhancing drugs. The organization is widely recognized as the national leader in education on the topic of APED use by youth of the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.  THF has spoken to almost one million people directly with their education programs and partners with MLB, the NFL and the NHL to spread the word about the dangers of performance enhancing drugs.

According to Hooten, current studies indicate that five to seven percent of the general high school population admit to using substances like anabolic steroids. To put that into context, he said, in a high school with 2,000 students, that’s between 100-140 kids “walking the hallways who ADMIT to using performance enhancing drugs,” he said.

Most surprising is that children found using PEDs aren’t always looking for a leg up on the playing field, he said. “It’s all about looking better,” Hooten said, comparing the issue to bulimia and anorexia. So even if your child isn’t an athlete, it doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk.

Know the Signs

While the signs and symptoms of PED use are numerous, he listed the key indicators seen in his son in retrospect.

  1. Quick weight/muscle gain. Taylor put on 30 pounds of weight, mostly muscle, in about 90 days. “We didn’t know any better,” he said. “We were reinforcing him, ‘Taylor you’re looking great, you’ve been working out!'” he said. He learned from a toxicologist after Taylor’s death that there is no way a child of 17 could bulk up that much, that quickly, without using an unnatural substance.
  2. Severe back acne.
  3. Bad breath. Hooten says his wife was buying “Costco-sized” bottles of Scope for Taylor every few weeks.
  4. Bloated, puffy appearance due to water retention caused by the steroids.

“In hindsight we noticed it all, but we just never connected the dots,” Hooten said.

One issue, severe behavior changes, did catch their attention.

“Behavior changes in 15-16 year-old kids is normal, but we’d raised two other kids and what we were seeing was more than the normal mood swings of a teenager,” he added. He described situations in which Taylor would storm off in a near blind rage by simply being told he needed to go to bed, only to return a few minutes later, near tears, compliant and apologetic.

We have all heard of “Roid Rage,” that accompanies the use of anabolic steroid use, but less discussed is the polar opposite – crushing depression. It occurs in nearly 30-percent of all steroid users and was what ultimately led to Taylor’s suicide.

Access is Easy

Hooten’s son purchased the steroids he used from a 19 year-old dealer at their YMCA. “There’s always somebody at the gym that will sell them stuff,” he said. But more alarming is that children don’t even need to leave their bedrooms to purchase any number of PEDs.

A quick search on the internet reveals thousands of sites selling these substances.

“All they need is a computer and a credit card or a money order,” he said. “And you can have some delivered in a plain brown envelope right there to your house.”

Three Messages for Kids about PEDs

Parents need to educate themselves on what to look for when it comes to children using PEDs, Hooten said. But of equal importance is making sure that kids know these three important things about steroid use:

  1. PEDs are incredibly dangerous, both physically and emotionally.
  2. PEDs are cheating. “It’s against the rules in every single legitimate sport – and it’s cheating in life,” Hooten said.
  3. PEDs are illegal. In nearly every jurisdiction in the US it is a felony to possess performance enhancing drugs without a legitimate prescription, he added. If a person is caught with illegal steroids, they face stiff penalties, including jail time – which can drastically impact a child’s future – including their ability to get into college and find a good job.

These messages are difficult to convey, but as Dr. Gilboa said, the conversation may be easier to get started given the recent news about Starling Marte. That may be the one positive to come out of the revelations from the Pirates this week.

Useful Links

Kids often put professional athletes on a pedestal. Here are more tips from Dr. Gilboa on how to talk to them when their sports heroes fall. 

Know the Signs and Symptoms of Steroid Abuse

While kids may be upset to find that their favorite MLB player has used PEDs, The Taylor Hooten Foundation’s All Me League is full of MLB players representing all 30 teams who pledge to remain PED-Free and serve as role models. Former Pittsburgh Pirates representatives include Mark Melancon and Jared Hughes.

 

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Joy Frank-Collins

Joy Frank-Collins is a Communications professional who got her start writing as a journalist at a daily newspaper in southeastern Ohio. She was born in Reds country, but "found" baseball watching the 1986 Mets win the World Series. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, with her family, who all share her passion for Pirates baseball. She loves the suicide squeeze, a crisp 6-4-3 double play and catchers (especially Russell Martin). When not obsessing over baseball, Joy likes to work out, travel and drink wine. Check her out on Instagram @JoyFC