Let Them Eat 'Roids


By Patrick Hruby
Published December 21, 2004

Purists hissed. The chattering class cried foul. Dissenters howled, claiming the game never would be the same.

Reaction to baseball's latest steroid revelations? Not quite.

Roughly three decades ago, the American League adopted that most egregious of competitive affronts: the designated hitter. And ever since, the game's devotees have lamented the introduction of a tipping element designed to boost scoring and interest in a sagging sport.

All of which sounds vaguely familiar.

Of course, none of the above is meant to suggest moral equivalence between Rafael Palmeiro hitting for a pitcher and performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Nor does it hint at a pending Viagra joke.

Rather, the comparison is intended to raise a serious, if sacrilegious, question: What if the knee-jerk outrage over "flaxseed oil" is just that? What if the steroid sanctimony is utterly misplaced?

What if athletes were free to juice?

"It comes back to death," said Dr. Robert Ruhling, director of the Human Performance Research Laboratory at George Mason University. "You can't pussyfoot around it. People are going to die. And who's going to be responsible? The athlete, the doctor or the organizing body?"

Ruhling probably is right. Maybe allowing steroids in sports would be irresponsible and immoral, akin to repealing seatbelt laws. Perhaps a national pastime rippling with chemically addled sluggers would signal the end of the Republic as we know it.

On the other hand, an end to drug bans could be much ado about very little, a seminal moment to match the invention of the Segway.

With federal prosecutors knee-deep in the BALCO mess and politicians like President Bush and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, weighing in, one thing seems obvious: There's another side to consider, the possibility that steroid prohibition makes as much sense as, well, Prohibition.

After all, if you can't play devil's advocate, you don't understand your own convictions. Which is just how the devil -- or in this case, Victor Conte -- likes it.

Should a drug-filled Olympics ever come to pass, the rationale would look something like this:

Testing doesn't work

American shot putter Adam Nelson formerly worked for Merrill Lynch. Once, while meeting with a client, he was interrupted by drug testers.

We need your urine. Right now.

"I'm like, 'Well, I'm an Olympian,' " Nelson told his client. " 'This is part of it.' "

Is it ever. The NFL spends $10 million annually on drug screening; the World Anti-Doping Agency performed 3,500 tests at the Athens Games alone.
So what do sports organizations get for expending millions? For trampling on the dignity of every athlete who would rather not urinate on command into a plastic cup?

"If you have an IQ above room temperature, you shouldn't be very confident in the ability of drug testing to catch anybody," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University epidemiologist and an expert on drugs in sports. "The Tour de France riders are tested up the wazoo, and guess who caught them [using EPO in 1998]? French border police. Chemists had nothing to do with it."

Consider BALCO. The steroid THG was designed to be undetectable. Testers only caught on because a disgruntled track coach slipped them a used syringe. Chemists didn't break the case. Nor did police. It took a whistle-blower. A rat.

Doping can be masked. Screening for testosterone , human growth hormone and other banned substances isn't foolproof. Sprinter Kelli White and a handful of Oakland Raiders are among those who passed tests while using THG. How many other unknown, unrecognizable drugs are out there?

Better question: how many rats are out there?

"With every chemical loophole that closes up, another one opens," Yesalis said. "And with advances in medical science, it's growing geometrically. What would work? Aggressive, undercover police sting operations. I'm talking handcuffs. Put it on 'Cops.' But are you willing to do that against Penn State, USC, the Baltimore Ravens, the L.A. Lakers?"

America put a man on the moon. Drug screening can work. However, a truly effective system would be akin to having 30 referees work courtside at every NBA game: costly, invasive and probably not worth the trouble.
In the meantime, why fight a losing battle?

Integrity is relative

This is the asterisk era. Or so everyone says. Yesteryear's sluggers were honest home run kings; today's players are fraudulent, puffed-up 'roid mongers.

Drugs, the argument goes, destroy competitive integrity. They provide users with an unfair and unnatural advantage, tilting an otherwise level playing field.

Asked about Barry Bonds' reported admission to a grand jury that he unknowingly took steroids , Hank Aaron intimated as much.

"Can [drugs] make you recuperate consistently enough to hit the kind of home runs these guys have been hitting?" Aaron told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Let me say this. Any way you look at it, it's wrong."

Maybe so. But open your eyes: The playing fields are hardly level to begin with.

Bonds wears a padded protector on his right arm, giving him a plate-hugging elbow up on hitters who bat au naturel. The second-ranked Oklahoma football team has a reported operating budget of $29.8 million, dwarfing opponent Bowling Green.

Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs without facing a single black pitcher. No asterisk for him. From Lance Armstrong's powerful race team to better boat design in sailing's America's Cup, competitive imbalances are accepted all the time.

So why not doping?

"Talent is an advantage," said Jacob Sullum, a syndicated columnist and author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use." "If anything, steroids could compensate for someone's natural disadvantage."

Go ahead. Draw a line between steroids and, say, high-altitude training. Call the former a distasteful shortcut; the latter, a way for athletes to maximize their talents naturally through hard work.

In reality, the distinction may be dubious. Drugs function by allowing athletes to train harder and more effectively than otherwise possible. Good coaches do the same thing. Should Joe Gibbs be placed on WADA's banned substance list?

"What is doping? That's been a huge problem," Yesalis said. "Tiger Woods, a bunch of NFL quarterbacks and NASCAR drivers have had laser eye surgery. How is that not cheating? What about sodium bicarbonate? That's been used in horse racing for years."

Take creatine, a chemical compound that aids muscle recovery. Like testosterone, creatine occurs naturally in the body and has performance-enhancing effects; unlike testosterone, the FDA considers creatine a food product.

Semantics aside, should one be forbidden while the other can be purchased at any GNC?

The banned substance EPO and altitude training both boost endurance the same way, by stimulating the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Seeking a similar edge, U.S. speedskaters reportedly sleep in high-tech, oxygen-deprived rooms.

To review: jamming a needle in one's arm? Bad, very bad. But snoozing in a Michael Jackson-esque reverse hyperbaric chamber, sans the company of Bubbles the chimp?

Meh. No big deal.

"That's just ridiculous," Sullum said. "I don't see what is different in principle between steroids and anything else artificial we do to change our abilities, be it working out, diet, the various medicines people take to recover from injuries. There's an idea that sports ought to be pristine and unsullied by artificial things. Clearly, that's not the case."

Safety first?

Former NFL star Lyle Alzado died of brain lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. He blamed his condition on years of juicing. On both counts, he should have known better.

Fact is, medical scientists simply don't understand the long-term side effects of steroid use .

"There has never been an epidemiological study of the long-term effects of using these drugs," Yesalis said. "We're talking five, 10, 15 years. We just don't know."

In the short term, steroids can cause acne. They have been linked to mood swings and liver damage. They also can shrink the testicles. Not good.

Still, most side effects can be managed under proper medical supervision. Oft dismissed as a devil's bargain, steroids are first and foremost medical drugs, used to treat conditions like body wasting in AIDS patients.
As such, they're no more Faustian than, say, Cialis.

"We've used steroids in medicine going on 70 years," Yesalis said. "There does not exist an over-the-counter or prescription medication for which there is not adverse side effects. How about Vioxx? Having said that, there's no doubt in my mind that if these drugs are taken at high enough doses for long periods of time, you will be putting yourself in harm's way."

Probably so. And all the more reason to remove steroids from the drug underground. Athletes think like everyone else: If one pill is good, 10 must be better. They push the envelope. A case can be made that horror stories like Alzado's come not from drug use but abuse.

Perhaps athletes would be better off juicing legally under the strict watch of team doctors and trainers, as opposed to the shady likes of Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer.

"Go back to before Roe v. Wade," Ruhling said. "Women were having abortions. Ninety percent weren't medically supervised. People were dying. If you could regulate and control steroid use, maybe that would be an answer to some of the problems."

In some ways, the sports world's drug ban seems paternalistic, hypocritical. Baseball allows the use of chewing tobacco, a known carcinogen. Football linemen are encouraged to tip the scales at 300-plus pounds, never mind future health problems. Across the athletic spectrum, invasive surgeries and addictive painkillers are the norm.

EPO is risky. So is skiing downhill at 80 mph.

"Athletes are not in safe jobs," Sullum said. "They make their living by getting the [stuff] knocked out of them. And now you're worried about steroids?"

Fans don't care

Lost in the torrent of steroid wailing? Only this: Clean athletes don't seem too concerned.

In theory, nonusers should be furious with their juiced-up peers. The cheaters are getting over. Yet track athletes aren't banding together to out their dirty counterparts; given a chance to institute steroid testing, baseball players chose a lax, toothless system.

What gives? Two possibilities:

1) The majority of athletes are cheating and would rather not get caught.

2) The clean majority would prefer to remain silent, give up a few dingers and collect ever-expanding paychecks. Fans dig the long ball.

"If a huge number of fans turned off their TVs and didn't go to the ballpark, it would get drugs out of sport," Yesalis said. "You'd have people squealing on each other. It would hit everybody's pockets. But arguably, doping has filled everybody's pockets."

Indeed. Drug rumors didn't dull the excitement surrounding Bonds' 73-home run season. Nor did they prevent Marion Jones from becoming the darling of the Sydney Games.

Asked whether players who fail steroid tests should be banned from baseball, 42 percent of the respondents in a recent poll said no. Fifty-seven percent said records set by steroid users should stand.

Sullum likens the situation to that of an actress with breast implants. Are implants natural? Nope. Are they medically dubious? A bit.

Are they a reason to turn off the movie? Ask Pam Anderson.

"Obviously it doesn't ruin your enjoyment," Sullum said. "It probably increases it. Pro sports are not hurting for money or fans."

In his State of the Union Address last January, President Bush argued that athletes are role models. Sports need to clean up their act, if only for the sake of our children.

Doug Abrams, a panelist at the University of Rhode Island's Center for Sports Parenting, thinks teen steroid abuse may have less to do with idol worship than with hyper-competitive youth sports.

"Kids tend to imitate what the pros do, but I'm not so sure that's a real problem with steroids," said Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri. "They want the same performance-enhancing effect, a chance to get a college athletic scholarship."

Besides, children aren't allowed to drive. Should NASCAR be disbanded? Hollywood actors aren't subject to random drug tests. Why are athletes any different?

"Why not test Joe Paterno?" Yesalis said. "What abut politicians? Bill Clinton wouldn't even release his medical records. What's in there? When I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, we referred to baseball in religious terms. But if you're under 40, you see this all as entertainment. And if that's all it is, you can argue drugs help entertainment."

Resistance is futile

The ancient Greeks considered the Olympic Games sacred. They didn't have million-dollar endorsement deals on the line. They cheated anyway, bribing judges and downing performance-enhancing elixirs.

Gaming the system always has been around, at least since the Roman emperor Nero, a self-styled bard, added poetry reading to the Olympic program in 67 A.D.

Guess who won the contest.

"None of this is new," Yesalis said. "Sports and athletes aren't some oddity. We live in a highly competitive environment. People push the edge of the envelope. If there was a pill to make journalists win a Pulitzer or make scientists win a Nobel, don't you think they would use it?"

This is a performance-enhanced age, an era of Viagra-popping, Botox-shooting bliss. Wellness is the standard; better than well is the goal. Genetic therapy promises a brave new world of medical breakthroughs. New doping techniques, too.

Drugs are easily banned. Human nature? Not so much.

"I don't say this easily, but I'm getting to the point where as long as we don't legalize these drugs in society, let the athletes do what they want," Yesalis said. "At least it would be a more honest portrayal of what is already happening."

Thanks to Deacon @ SBI for the post.