THE MOST IMPORTANT steroids story last week involved neither George Mitchell, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Lenny Dykstra nor Bud Selig, which means no one paid any attention to it.

The story: that a survey of 12th grade males indicates that the use of anabolic steroids has decreased 40 percent since 2004.

This has nothing to do with phony drug-testing programs or false athletic gods. It has nothing to do with the dozens of baseball players written up in the Mitchell Report, 409 pages of hearsay or heresy, depending upon your perspective.

This is about kids and steroids, two subjects that should not mix. This is about tougher criminal penalties for distribution of steroids and it is about education. This appears to be the only tangible benefit of all of the light and heat that CC and Company - Canseco and Congress - have thrown on to this subject.

According to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, an ongoing project surveying American youth, not only do the survey respondents claim less steroid usage - for 12th grade males, it peaked at 2.5 percent in 2002 and 2004 - but they also acknowledge the potential harm in steroid usage, with the numbers seeing a "great risk" on the increase.

This is good. This amounts to a backhanded compliment to all of the braying honorables in Congress who sought and received publicity when Mark McGwire pushed his reading glasses down on his ever-lengthening nose and Rafael Palmeiro brazenly shook his finger.

Again, the attention and the resulting movement to educate kids on the dangers of steroids appears to be working. That, to repeat, is the news. The rest of it - the lame testing program that Congress foisted upon baseball, replacing an admittedly even-lamer testing program, and the lame report that Mitchell just compiled - is all about public relations and nothing but public relations, and hardly about reality at all.

The thing was 409 pages. But if the former Mets clubhouse kid (Kirk Radomski) and the former Clemens/Yankees trainer (Brian McNamee) had chosen a trip to Tahiti over a talk with the authorities, the Mitchell Report would have been the Mitchell Pamphlet. That is how little new information he unearthed.

Conversely, if baseball had an Olympic-style drug testing program, the report would have been as thick as the Manhattan white pages. And if baseball's authorities had the same zeal for eliminating drugs from their sport as the cycling people do from theirs, the Mitchell Report would have rivaled the Oxford English Dictionary.

But nobody wants that - not baseball management, not baseball players and, frankly, not baseball fans, either. Baseball owners and players like making money and don't want any impediments to said wealth accumulation. Baseball fans like the summertime diversion and don't really want to think too hard about the rest of it. The interests here are entirely harmonious.

But Congress yelled a couple of years ago, so now they do their little testing thing. It is not meaningless but it is weak by international sports standards. It only catches lunkheads but it looks good and it looks like they're trying and that is all that matters. (The NFL, by the way, learned this years ago - that looking good is the best way to keep Congress away.)

Human-growth hormone, without a valid test to detect it right now, is clearly the performance-enhancer of choice. And when they do get a test for that, the chemists (or bioengineers) will earn their paychecks anew. It will always be something, as long as the financial incentives for athletic success are so enormous.

Testing will not stop elite cheaters when tens of millions of dollars are potentially the reward for cheating. Feeble testing will not even stop the semi-elite cheaters.

The people named in the Mitchell Report undoubtedly are having a tough week here. This is all very embarrassing, for sure. Some will plead temporary insanity, as Pettitte did. Some will deny, as Clemens did yesterday. But it is all more public relations, this time playing out at the personal level.

Do you honestly think a lot of them regret it? When they look themselves in the mirror? When they examine their bank statements? Do you really think they would do anything differently?

Then again, you really don't want to think about it, do you? Other than the high school kids, do you really care? Of course you don't.

In the meantime, the public relations dance continues. *

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