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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 25, 2008

Information provides the best defense

Illustration by Forest Byrd

“We’re just trying to hold the line...” Voorheesville’s high school principal Mark Diefendorf told us last week. He could have been talking about football. It’s an important sport here, a focus for the community. The scores have been abysmal the last two Saturday games. The Blackbirds lost 54 to 7 and 68 to 19.

But the principal was talking about something more important than football: the game of life. He was talking about teaching kids a lesson that could shape their future.

“We’re just trying to hold the line and make sure kids are making the right choices,” said Diefendorf.

Our sportswriter, Jordan J. Michael, broke the story last week that five Voorheesville football players were suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. It would have been easy for the coach, Joe Sapienza, to look the other way, to put winning ahead of teaching important life lessons. But he didn’t. He suspended the players and, he said, was supported by their families.

Sapienza sent us a copy of the district’s code of conduct. We found it to be vague.

The only guidance the code offers is this: “Student involvement in the extra-curricular program shall be deemed to be an acceptance of a lifestyle which supports the philosophy that a student should have a sound, healthy mind and body and the responsibility and commitment associated with this philosophy.”

There is no mention of drugs or alcohol.

Sapienza, who has coached for 20 years and been Voorheesville’s head coach for 15, said he had dealt with code-of-conduct violations before. A coach who is not as experienced or committed to long-term growth as opposed to short-term victory, might have made a different choice. We believe the code should be more specific.

We also wish some in the administration had been more forthcoming in answering our questions. Voorheesville is between superintendents right now. Raymond Colucciello, an administrator with decades of experience, is filling in. We can appreciate that he and others want to protect Voorheesville’s students. But, without naming any individuals, he could have told us what substance or substances the players were taking; how it was discovered; what sort of testing, if any, was done; and what harm, if any, was caused to the students’ health.

“One of the guys had to make a trip to the hospital,” a player told us but Colucciello wouldn’t discuss it.

This information would be useful to other students and parents in the community. Information provides the best defense. Parents need to know what to look for; students need to know what to avoid. Colucciello told us he didn’t know what substance the players were taking, that he’s not a pharmacist.

We heard assertions it was human growth hormone. But an expert, a doctor who had testified before the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, told us this was highly unlikely. Dr. Alan Rogol surmised “they got something on the Internet or over the counter that’s similar or something that releases human growth hormone.”

While physician-prescribed hormones can effectively treat children with stunted growth and other conditions, Rogol said that the “phony stuff out there” can be dangerous.

Diefendorf — a school leader whose candor we always appreciate — said, “I would call them designer drugs. They’re close to being illegal.” He said of the companies that develop such drugs, “They change the molecular structure. They’re just one step ahead of the law.”

In light of the suspensions, Diefendorf said, the district will hold a community forum on performance-enhancing drugs before the winter sports’ season starts. “It’s not just football,” he said. “It could be any other sport because it’s just about enhancing your performance and making you better, faster, stronger, bigger — that’s what it’s all about.”

Voorheesville is taking the right approach.

Kids make mistakes and schools are places for learning. Suspending the players was a way to teach them a lesson. And using their suspension to educate the community benefits us all.

Diefendorf was exactly right when he compared it to a lottery mentality — “become a success quickly,” he said, a phenomenon seen in business and professional sports. He went on, “And we see it in our young people now, looking for ways to get one up on somebody else.”

While we’ve read of professional and college athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, we haven’t before seen coverage of high-school teams doing so. We believe the problem exists elsewhere; it just isn’t public. By making the problem public, we have a chance to help correct it.

“I don’t spend a lot of time on disappointment,” said Colucciello. “I spend more time on how we can make young people grow.”

One of the players who wasn’t suspended told us of his teammates, “We’re feeling pretty down.”

Hold your heads high, Blackbirds. You’re on a team with a coach, a high-school principal, and an acting superintendent who care enough to teach you right from wrong and to educate a community along with you.

We think the bleachers at next Saturday’s game should be filled with Voorheesvillians chanting that old cheer, “We’re from Voorheesville, we couldn’t be prouder. You can’t hear us now, we’ll yell a little louder.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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