Friday, December 21, 2007

Sports News - Rachel Blount: Hooton still hopes son's suicide spurs sports to sober up

A grieving father keeps trying to strike nerves only nicked by the arrows of the Mitchell Report.
If you watched the 2005 congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, you might remember Don Hooton. In a room full of glamorous frauds and executive-level deniers, he stood out as the ordinary guy who had the guts to tell the truth.

And what a painful truth it was. The grieving father cut through all the obfuscation of those hearings with his tearful tale of how steroids tore a hole through his Texas family. His 17-year-old son Taylor, a high school pitcher, made a noose from a belt and hung himself from his bedroom door while trapped in a depression related to steroids use.

Don Hooton stood among the Major League Baseball glitterati and Washington power brokers again last week for the unveiling of the Mitchell Report. While most discussion of the report centers on two kinds of stars -- those whose names showed up in its pages and those that might be placed next to tainted records -- Hooton continues to make the case that it's really about the messages we're sending to the next generation.

"I don't think most players have heard stories like Taylor's," said Hooton, who created the Taylor Hooton Foundation to raise awareness of the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs. "They need to look into the face of a dad who lost his kid and realize they have a responsibility as role models to kids.

"I'm very pleased Senator Mitchell understands what's really at stake here. He thinks the situation with kids is at least as important, if not more important, than worrying about putting an asterisk next to a record."

There remains a major disconnect in this country when it comes to the intersection of kids, athletes and behavior. Athletes say they shouldn't be role models, even though their sports are marketed to children who inevitably look up to them. Parents tout the values of sportsmanship and fair play, then take their kids to games to cheer stars who use drugs or abuse their spouses.

Such mixed messages have helped performance-enhancing drug use trickle down from pro clubhouses to high school locker rooms. The Centers for Disease Control reported that nearly 5 percent of high school students surveyed in 2005 said they had used steroids. In the 2006 Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1.8 percent of high-school sophomores and 2.7 percent of seniors admitted trying steroids.

About two months ago, Hooton met with Mitchell. The father told the former senator how steroids destroyed his son and others; Hooton said that widened Mitchell's focus and drove home the message that baseball's problem is actually everyone's problem.

Commissioner Bud Selig also met with Hooton last week and assured him he is serious about cleaning up the game. Though Mitchell urged Selig not to punish the named players, Hooton said that public consequences for stars -- and testing for steroids among a significant number of high school athletes -- can have an impact.

"If kids see Barry Bonds go to jail, if they see Marion Jones give back her medals, if they see Major League Baseball implement real testing and have real punishment to go with it, we could see some effect," he said. "And if they think there's a reasonable chance they'll get caught with a random test at school, we might have a chance of licking this problem."

Hooton is skeptical of last week's Monitoring the Future numbers that showed a 33 percent drop since 2001 in the number of 12- to 17-year-olds who said they had used steroids in the past month. The survey relies on teens to be honest, and he knows from his own son's endless denials that steroids use is highly secretive.

He does believe it can be combated with the bright light of truth. Hooton devotes dozens of hours per week to the cause, developing anti-steroids programs, updating his website ( and speaking to anyone who will listen.

Now that the initial focus on the names is quieting, Hooton expects Mitchell's report to be yet another step in eroding our collective apathy about drugs in sport. He didn't read the signs of his own son's downward spiral until it was too late. With baseball traveling the same path of ruin, he hopes Mitchell's call to action will provide the game with the lifeline Taylor never grasped.

"Every wave brings us closer to dealing with this problem," he said. "I've got to be optimistic."

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