AUSTIN, Texas -- When Texas officials launched a massive public high school steroids testing program over fears of rampant doping from the football fields to the tennis courts, they promised a model program for the rest of the country to follow.
But almost no one followed. And after spending $10 million testing more than 63,000 students to catch just a handful of cheaters, Texas lawmakers appear likely to defund the program this summer. If they do, New Jersey and Illinois will have the only statewide high school steroids testing programs.
Even those who pushed for the Texas program in 2007 now call it a colossal misfire, either a waste of money or too poorly designed to catch the drug users some insist are slipping through the cracks.
"I believe we made a huge mistake," said Don Hooton, who started the Taylor Hooton Foundation for steroid abuse education after his 17-year-old son's 2003 suicide was linked to the drug's use. Hooton was one of the key advocates in creating the Texas program.
While there are a low number of positive tests, Hooton doesn't believe that means Texas athletes are clean -- only that they're not getting caught because of inadequate testing and loopholes that allow them to cheat the process.
"Coaches, schools and politicians have used the abysmal number of positive tests to prove there's no steroid problem," Hooton said. "What did we do here? We just lulled the public to sleep."
Texas wasn't the first state to test high schoolers. New Jersey and Florida were first and Illinois started about the same time as Texas. But the Lone Star State employed its typical bigger-is-better swagger by pumping in millions to sweep the state for cheaters. At the time, Texas had more than 780,000 public high school athletes, by far the most in the nation. A positive test would kick the star quarterback or point guard out of the lineup for at least 30 days.
Schools across the country closely watched Texas, said Don Colgate, director of sports and sports medicine at the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"Texas was going out in front in a big way," Colgate said. "(But) it's not a cheap process, and (other states) knew they were not going to do it on the scale of what Texas did."
New Jersey and Illinois each spends about $100,000 annually testing a few hundred athletes. Florida folded its $100,000 program in 2009.
There were questions from the start whether Texas should go so big.
The University Interscholastic League, the state's governing body for high school sports, surveyed its member public schools in 2002 and the vast majority said testing should be a local decision. By 2007, headlines of performance-enhancing drug abuse in professional sports and a push from advocates like Hooton prodded lawmakers to forge ahead, and they pumped in $6 million for the first two years.
Texas hired Drug Free Sport, which conducts testing for the NCAA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, to randomly select students, pull them out of class and have them supply a urine sample. The first 19,000 tests produced just nine confirmed cases of steroid use, with another 60 "protocol violations" for skipping the test.
Few saw those numbers as good news of clean athletes or even as proof the program could be a successful deterrent. Most saw it as fodder for criticism that the state was wasting its money.
And national momentum was ebbing. The economic downturn pinched state budgets. Other health issues, including heat-related deaths and head safety, jumped to the forefront.
Anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin, who spent years conducting the NCAA's laboratory tests at UCLA, said the Texas plan was well-intentioned but didn't test for enough drugs in the early years and had gaps in protocols that cheaters could exploit. Texas tested for only about 10 drugs in the first wave, a fraction of the anabolic agents on the market, which Catlin warned would be easy to avoid detection.
Testers also can lose the element of surprise because they have to tell school officials when they'll be on campus. While that is supposed to be confidential, the news can slip out, and UIL has punished schools for violations.
Although students are required to empty their pockets and lift shirts above their waste band, testing officials also aren't allowed to physically watch the person providing a urine sample. Privacy for underage athletes is a potentially huge loophole for cheaters.
The testing protocols, including which drugs were tested for, were developed by the UIL and Drug Free Sport.
"The program they developed was bound to fail," Catlin said. "I told them years ago to put the money into something else."
State lawmakers have been scaling down the Texas program almost since it began.
It was trimmed to $2 million by 2010 and has continued to shrink to about $500,000 a year. That required testing fewer athletes and targeting specific sports such as football, wrestling and baseball.
UIL athletic director Mark Cousins said Texas now targets about 60 drugs, but the number of positive tests still remains low. In the 2013-14 school year, the UIL tested 2,633 students and caught two.
Hooton said those low figures don't match anecdotal evidence of higher steroid use among teens. A 2014 study by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids found that 7 percent of high schoolers reported using steroids from 2009 to 2013.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews state programs, recommended in 2014 that lawmakers drop the program. The commission's report noted that unless the state wanted to pump up to $5 million a year into a program on par with elite college and pro leagues, it wouldn't be effective at catching cheaters or scaring them away from drugs.
Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that exposed performance-enhancing drug use by former cyclist Lance Armstrong, scoffed at Texas for moving to eliminate its program. He noted Texas cities have been willing to pay millions for state-of-the-art high school football facilities.
"They're willing to spend ($60) million building one high school football stadium, but can't find a fraction of that to protect the health and safety of young athletes? Come on," Tygart said. "It's a joke."