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Rethinking Steroids

”Baseball players will take anything. If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins but might take five years off his life, he’d take it.”

Jim Bouton wrote that forty years ago. He also listed some of the things he’d taken over the years: butazolidin (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory he referred to as “what they give horses”), DMSO (a fast-penetrating solvent believed to help with inflammation, though Bouton added, “Word is it can blind you”), novocaine, cortisone, and xylocaine. He leaves the impression that if there were things he didn’t take, it’s because he didn’t know about them. (Steroids were not an issue because baseball players back then avoided lifting weights for fear they’d lose flexibility.)

We howl with outrage when athletes use steroids. But why are we surprised? They’re doing what we want them to do – i.e., everything they can to win.

We want sports stars to do glorious things as our surrogates. We don’t care about their long-term futures, or their lives after sports. We condemn the player who sits out to nurse small wounds, who pulls up shy of the fence instead of crashing into it in pursuit of a fly, who veers out of bounds instead of taking a hit. We praise the gamer, who gives us everything he has on every play whether it’s smart or not. We laud Curt Schilling for risking serious damage to his ankle by pitching the bloody-sock game after a quick-fix procedure. We lionize Willis Reed for playing on an injured knee, after getting a Carbocaine injection to block all pain signals from his leg to his brain.

So why are we upset when a player takes something to aid in his recovery from workouts?

It’s not as though we’re a society opposed to enhancing performance. You can’t watch a sporting event for more than a few minutes without seeing ads for a very specific kind of performance enhancer. We use Rogaine for our thinning hair, Prozac for depression, Xanax for anxiety, Prilosec for heartburn, Lamisil for toenail fungus, Viagra for fun, Botox for wrinkles – and we pillory athletes for taking drugs that make them better at their jobs.

But what about the dangers?

What about them? According to Dr. Norman Fost, Professor of Pediatric Medicine and Director of the Program in Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, the side effects of steroid use, as reported scientifically in medical journals, are hair loss, acne, infertility, lowered voices in women, and testicular shrinkage, all of which are reversible when the user stops. In his thought-provoking documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster , Chris Bell notes that while alcohol and tobacco cause 75,000 and 435,000 deaths respectively in America each year, anabolic steroids are believed to cause 3. Among reasons for emergency room visits, steroids rank 142nd – behind multivitamins.

What about Lyle Alzado? He died because of his steroid use, didn’t he?

Alzado died of a brain tumor. He blamed the steroids, but medical experts don’t. Dr. Charles Yesalis, Professor Emeritus of Health Policy and Administration, and Exercise and Sport Science at Penn State, who has published more than 70 articles about steroid use, told Bell, “I don’t know of any of my colleagues who link his central nervous system lymphoma with his use of steroids.”

Performance enhancement is not a single thing; it is a continuum. At one end is nutrition; at the other, perhaps, is Bouton’s mythical 20-win pill. But where does the moral boundary lie? It’s perfectly fine to eat liver to get extra iron that will aid you in storing and transporting oxygen in the bloodstream; it’s a violation to take r-EPO (recombinant erythropoietin), an artificial hormone that causes increased production of red blood cells to achieve the same effect. Why is one ok and the other not? What’s the moral distinction?

One of them is natural, the other isn’t.

True. But in that case, why is it okay to train and sleep in chambers constructed so they mimic high-altitude conditions, forcing the body to adapt to a lower-oxygen environment in ways that have benefits in competition at sea level? Why are hyperbaric treatments to speed healing acceptable for athletes? In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, as reported by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward of the Steelers had blood drawn and put into a centrifuge to concentrate the platelets before the blood was given back to them, in the interests of hastening their recovery from injuries. Is this natural? Does that matter? How is such blood doping morally different from steroids?

If pro athletes are doing these drugs, kids will, and we don’t want kids messing with this stuff.

I agree wholeheartedly. Research suggests that steroids are dangerous for developing bodies. We absolutely do not want young people taking steroids.

There are a lot of things that pro athletes do that we don’t want young people doing. Forget about actions like drinking and smoking and sex and reckless driving (all at once in some cases); I mean things like throwing curveballs and playing football and training for a sport fulltime. Is it hypocrisy to tell kids that some things are off-limits until they’re older? Ask the nearest parent. A criminal ban on providing steroids for performance enhancement to anyone under 21 would be wholly appropriate.

It is difficult to discuss steroids rationally, because they were banned so quickly and totally that scientific research became impossible. After fifty years of mostly illicit use, however, we know much more about them than we did when their cartoonish image was developed. An injection will not give you instant abilities; you still have to put in the work, and be exceptionally gifted to begin with. They will not necessarily cause freakish bulk; if that’s your aim, they will help you tolerate the effort it takes to get there, but you can use them and train without turning into a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon. “They’ve been used in medicine since the 1930s,” Dr. Yesalis told Bell. “Can they be used safely? Yeah.”

Do I really think steroids are okey-dokey for pro athletes? Um… I’m not sure. But I think the issue is much muddier than the current hysteria makes it seem. In prior generations, amphetamines (“greenies”) were the drugs of choice; Mike Schmidt wrote in his book Clearing the Bases that they were “widely available in baseball clubhouses,” and there was testimony in the Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985 that Willie Mays kept liquid amphetamines in his locker. (Mays has denied the charge.) When performance is needed, enhancement will be tried.

I suspect that future generations will look at the use of steroids in sports in much the same way we look at the medical use of leeches in bygone days. We understand what they were trying to do, but can you believe they used something so crude? As with any drug, it’s a matter of balancing effectiveness with risk – and that’s a question of tactics, not morals.

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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