As sports officials fight to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs by big-name athletes, they face a new foe in South Florida: Parents seeking the dangerous chemicals to help their teens fulfill athletic dreams, a Sun Sentinel investigation has found.
The parents want the same substances — human growth hormone and anabolic steroids — that New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was accused of obtaining from a South Florida clinic by Major League Baseball last week, the newspaper learned.
"Typically it's a family that's sports-oriented and the child is very competitive," said Dr. Mary Ann Vaccarello-Cruz, a pediatric endocrinologist in West Palm Beach.
In a four-month investigation, the Sun Sentinel found:
• Physicians from Miami to Vero Beach said parents have requested prescription-only drugs to make their young athletes bigger and stronger even when the children display no medical need for them.
• More than six dozen South Florida high school students or recent graduates interviewed by the newspaper said they used hormones or steroids for strength-building, or knew others who had.
• Some of the young people and three physicians said parents knew of their teens' drug use or supplied the drugs.
• Several local coaches and trainers said parents told them they were seeking performance-enhancing substances to give their young athletes an edge.
"Parents, they want their sons to be stars," said James Hay, 20, a former defensive end and 2011 graduate of Jupiter High, who said some of his teammates took human growth hormone and steroids. "Whatever helps... It's real competitive."
South Florida is at the center of the trend for two reasons, sports officials say. The area is a breeding ground for competitive high school sports programs and known for its top-tier talent. It's also home to many anti-aging and wellness clinics, providing easyaccess to performance-enhancing drugs.
"The parents hear that these things are possibly available, and that pro athletes are using them, and they want to know if that's something their son or daughter — usually son — can use for competitive advantage," said Dr. Ernesto Blanco, a pediatric endocrinologist in Fort Lauderdale.
Said Blanco: "Many clinics, unfortunately, provide these medications when they are not medically necessary."
The now-shuttered clinic in Coral Gables at the forefront of the scandal engulfing Rodriguez and 12 other Major Leaguers was one source for South Florida families seeking to bulk up their junior athletes, a former employee has claimed.
Parents of 16- and 17-year-old high school baseball players in the greater Miami area reportedly brought their sons to Biogenesis for performance-enhancing substances as recently as 2011, according to Porter Fischer, who ignited the scandal when he leaked records containing the names of Rodriguez and other pro players. On Monday, Major League Baseball suspended Rodriguez without pay through the end of the 2014 season — he is appealing — and the others 50 games each for violating baseball's drug policy.
Fischer "was very concerned about the high school athletes," said attorneyRaymond J. Rafool, who represented Fischer when he spoke to the Sun Sentinel, but no longer does. "The parents were taking their kids in."
Local coaches said the quest for performance-enhancing chemicals, which are illegal without a prescription, is the logical next step for some ambitious families who spend thousands of dollars on private coaches, personal trainers, sports psychologists and personal recruiters in the hope of ensuring their children's athletic success or a coveted scholarship.
It's "about making sure that your child has every advantage ... whether it be legal or illegal," said legendary South Florida high school baseball coach Rich Hofman, who coached Rodriguez when the future Yankee superstar was a student at Westminster Christian School. "There is an element out there that really feels like they need to do this for their child, because they don't have the God-given gifts, body-wise. And so they [believe they] need to manufacture them...
"There is a segment of that, and it's growing," Hofman said.
Stefane Dias, strength and conditioning coach for the American Top Team mixed martial arts academy in Coconut Creek, told the Sun Sentinel he has known parents who have sought performance-enhancing substances for their children, but does not condone the practice.
"Most of them, they're ex-athletes," Dias said. Such parents didn't make it to the pros themselves, he said, but think "'I'm going to do something different for my kid so he can make it. I will give him some drugs, steroids.' That's the mentality."
Medical authorities say the substances in question carry serious dangers when abused by children. Steroid use can lead to liver problems, breast development and testicle atrophy in males. Unnecessary use of human growth hormone can lead to heart problems, enlarged bones and organs and, some doctors say, increase the risk of cancer or other diseases.
Despite the risks, South Florida sports officials and medical experts told the Sun Sentinel, the use of such performance-enhancing drugs among school athletes may be on the rise.
"At the high school level, I know it's prevalent," said Dr. Jeremy Frank, an orthopedic surgeon at U18 Sports Medicine in Miramar and Coral Springs and team physician for USA Wrestling, the national governing body for the sport. Frank said some parents are oblivious to the visible side effects of the drug use — for instance, a child quickly putting on muscle — or complicit.
"Either parents don't know what to look for, or they're as vested in their kids' athletic success as the kids are," the surgeon said.
Hormone the drug of choice
Government statistics indicate steroid use among high school students is rising in Palm Beach County, bucking national trends that show general declines elsewhere — including in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Six and a half percent of high school boys and 4.7 percent of students overall reported taking steroids without a doctor's prescription in 2011 in Palm Beach County, up from 3.8 and 3.0 percent in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Broward, 3.6 percent of boys and 2.8 percent of high school students overall said they had illegally used steroids; less than the national averages of 4.2 percent of male high schoolers and 3.6 percent overall, but more than in some other areas.
Yet it is human growth hormone, about which there is no official data, that appears to be becoming the preferred performance-enhancer among South Florida teens. Like adult pros, kids may prefer the hormone to steroids because it is believed to help them recover from injuries and have fewer noticeable side effects.
"I know a few football, lacrosse players, weightlifters and wrestlers" at three area high schools who have taken human growth hormone, said Brandon Olmstead, 18, a senior at Palm Beach Central who plays lacrosse and participates in weightlifting.
Zachary Perez, 21, a former basketball player at Miami and Coral Gables high schools, said some young athletes seek doctors they hear are willing to prescribe human growth hormone.
"In basketball, you need height and strength and speed," Perez said. "For that, HGH helps."
Undersized as a youngster, Perez said he explored taking growth hormone himself in his early teens — "I was looking for an edge." He said he found a physician willing to supply a prescription but he and his father ultimately decided against it.
Doctors these days have more latitude to prescribe human growth hormone to minors than in the past. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of HGH for youngsters of extremely short stature, even when the cause of their stunted growth is unexplained. Prior to that, the drug was FDA-approved only for children suffering from a natural deficiency of the hormone or specific diseases.
Since then, doctors and sports officials told the Sun Sentinel, an increasing number of parents of youth and teen soccer, tennis, basketball and baseball players have been asking for the drug, often justifying their requests by saying their children are talented athletes but undersized compared to their peers.
"They're basically saying, 'I want something to help my child get that University of Florida scholarship,'" said Dr. Johnny Benjamin, an orthopedic surgeon in Vero Beach and member of the Association of Boxing Commissions Mixed Martial Arts Medical Advisory Panel.
Statistics obtained by the Sun Sentinel, though not comprehensive or official, indicate there has been an increase in HGH use by minors in South Florida.
Prescriptions for the hormone in Palm Beach County covered by Florida Blue, a major health-care provider, were 376 percent — almost four times — higher in 2012 than in 2003, according to statistics provided by the company. Most of the increase is due to use by children, said Scott McClelland, Florida Blue's senior director of commercial and specialty pharmacy.
The rise in HGH prescriptions was 43 percent in Broward and 84 percent in Miami-Dade counties over the same period, Florida Blue data showed.
Cigna, another large health-care provider, registered a 26 percent increase in human growth hormone prescriptions in South Florida for customers 18 and under from 2011 to 2012, a company spokesman said.
Physicians interviewed by the Sun Sentinel said they do not prescribe HGH unless a child shows a clear medical need. But some parents, they said, get upset when told their child doesn't qualify.
"I'm sure many … go on and find somebody else" to prescribe it, Blanco said.
The rise in growth hormone use is likely far greater than the figures indicate, as insurance companies often decline to reimburse prescriptions for childhood short stature, forcing parents to pay an annual tab that can run as high as $35,000, the doctors said. The substance is cheaper — but subject to dilution or contamination — if purchased on the black market. Doctors said they tell parents they would be better off saving for college than racking up huge pharmacy bills to try to ensure their child wins a football or other scholarship.
"If you pay for growth hormone, it's going to cost more than paying for college," said Dr. Gary D. Berkovitz, chief of the division of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "What's really at the bottom of this is wanting the kid to be a [sports] star ... and growth hormone has the panache. It has the reputation of being a miracle drug for sports."
Dr. Howard J. Gelb, who has been team physician for five high schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties, said he has treated teen athletes who appear to have no growth deficiencies, yet have disclosed their use of HGH on medical forms.
"Objectively, you look at the kid, at 6 feet, 3 inches, I don't think they need growth hormone," said Gelb, an orthopedic surgeon in Coral Springs. "There's definitely abuse."
'Not a problem that's going away'
Teens and recent high school graduates said that some South Florida anti-aging or wellness clinics, which offer HGH and steroids for anti-aging or vitality purposes to a much older clientele, have given children and their parents an easy avenue of access.
"If you go in there and say you want 'this, this and this,' if you have the cash you will get it," said Allen Massarella, 23, who said he started using steroids at age 17 while enrolled at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton. "They're legal drug dealers."
Jared Arena, a senior and football player at Boca Raton's Pope John Paul II High School who was 17 when he spoke to the newspaper this spring, said he knew teens who obtained human growth hormone "through their fathers who are old and getting it prescribed."
Olmstead, the Palm Beach Central senior, said a 17-year-old football player and wrestler told him he and his father used it, and that "his dad got him hooked on it for working out."
Wellington teen Matt DeSantis, also 17 when interviewed in late spring, said he knew about 10 people between the ages of 16 and 20 who used steroid cream their parents had obtained to treat low testosterone, and who applied it to themselves by rubbing it under their armpits.
"It worked," DeSantis said. "They got bigger."
Some teens who have gotten the prescription drugs sell them to others seeking to bulk up, high school students and recent grads told the Sun Sentinel.
Michael Deeb, 18, a star football and baseball player at American Heritage High in Plantation who is entering Notre Dame this fall on a football scholarship, said he saw "little kids" at school who had been prescribed HGH peddle the medication to cross country runners who wanted to get beefier and stronger. Deeb said he has never used any performance-enhancing substances himself.
Prompted by the Biogenesis scandal and the claim that minors had obtained performance-boosting drugs there, the Florida High School Athletic Association last week asked its sports advisory commitee to propose ways school districts can better halt the use of HGH and steroids by high school athletes.
"This is not a problem that is going away," said Roger Dearing, the association's executive director.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the quasi-government entity that oversees drug testing and education for Olympic sports, also is increasingly concerned over parents supplying performance-enhancing substances to their children, according to chief executive Travis Tygart.
In 2008, James Gahan, of the north-central Florida town of Lady Lake, was sentenced to six years in prison for giving steroids and human growth hormone to his son, Corey, a world-class athlete in in-line skating, beginning when he was 14.
Tygart's agency, which imposed a two-year competition ban on Corey after he tested positive for the use of banned substances, has since received complaints from other athletes and families nationwide about parents giving their kids banned substances.
"These parents are feeding their own egos by the performance of their kids. It's disgusting, to be quite honest with you," Tygart said. "You not only are taking advantage of these kids, you're turning them into frauds ... It's a reality that sports has to address in a real way."