DOES ANYBODY OUT THERE UNDERSTAND THE REAL PRICE OF STEROID ABUSE?


Earlier, several members of the Writers' Bloc considered the current steroid "scandal" and basically decided that it wasn't so bad, that players should be able to do what they wanted to with their bodies, and that, in any case, there's nothing much anybody can really do to stop it.

Now, Chuck Hirshberg -- normally the most affable and agreeable of colleagues -- offers his opinion on these opinions, as follows:

Wrong.

WRONG.

WRONG!!!!!

The dangers of steroids | By Chuck Hirshberg

A few weeks ago, when spring training commenced, a glorious sound was heard throughout baseball nation:

"Sploosh."

It was the sound of major leaguers flushing their steroids down the toilet. There's no need to mention any names. Players who, for years, have been suspected of juicing rolled into camp looking ever-so-trim, as if some naughty child had let the air out of them while they were asleep. "I been, um ... dietin'," these players explained, sheepishly, but no one was fooled. Steroid users were running scared all over the country and that was great news -- to everyone, it seems, except my colleagues here at the WB.

"Let them eat steroids." That was the message trumpeted in this space. Just as professional athletes -- and, far more important, the teenagers who worship them and emulate them -- were starting to sense that maybe it wasn't so easy to use these incredibly dangerous substances without getting caught, my Bloc buddies decided to jump up and scream: "Wait! Stop! These guys ought to be allowed to use steroids!"

Now, why did they do this, these friends of mine?

First, because they are rightly suspicious of the pious TV hypocrisy that says: "Just say no to drugs. But say yes, yes, YES! to Miller Lite, which is less filling, so you can get as drunk as you like, without getting filled up! Oh, and by the way, drive carefully."

Also, my friends love to challenge conventional wisdom, because they know that it is often far more conventional than it is wise.

But I believe there was a third reason: They simply do not understand that steroids are to athletic training what nuclear weapons are to warfare -- a weapon too powerful and potentially dangerous to be treated like conventional weapons.

Here now, are a few of what I consider the most wrongheaded statements (or misstatements) made in that edition of the Bloc, along with my efforts to correct them.

"Who gets to draw the line between glutamine and creatine and HGH and steroids?"

This is a lot like asking: "Who gets to draw the line between grape juice and wine and poison?"

The difference between creatine and steroids is not at all subtle. Creatine is a substance found in muscle tissue and, as long as your kidney and liver are healthy and you follow the package directions, it shouldn't cause any problems. It probably won't do you much good (though a recent study in England suggests that it may boost memory in -- I am not making this up -- vegetarians). But it's unlikely to do you any harm.

Steroids are monsters by comparison. These drugs ramp up levels of the hormone testosterone and, if you take enough of them, they will allow you to build a muscle mass far beyond the human body's natural capabilities. Indeed, according to Dr. Harrison Pope, a renowned steroids expert at Harvard's Mclean Hospital, some steroid users have managed to surpass the body's natural muscle limits by as much as 50 percent. Pope calls these Franken-pumpers "more male than male."

You've heard that steroid users often get shriveled testicles? That's because their pituitary glands sense the outrageous oversupply of testosterone and signal the testes, which produce the hormone naturally, to shut down.

You've heard steroid users are prone to injury? One reason is that a steroid-derived muscle often grows too powerful for its tendon, and, in a moment of exertion, literally rips that tendon from the bone.

So you see, "drawing the line" is very simple: If a training supplement "works" by overwhelming the body's natural limits in a demonstrably unhealthy fashion -- which is precisely what steroids do -- that substance probably shouldn't be permitted in athletic competitions between civilized people.

"How different, really, is a performance-enhancing drug from an antidepressant that allows you to 'be yourself'?"

If that performance-enhancing drug is a steroid, the difference, really, is at least an order of magnitude. Dr. Rich Melloni of Northeastern University is one of the world's foremost experts on how steroids affect the brain. "Prozac is carefully targeted to affect just one of the brain's neural systems," he explains. "Steroids, on the other hand, affect more than 50 times that number."

More than 50 times sounds a little imprecise, doesn't it? That's because, according to Pope and Melloni, the vast majority of anabolic steroids' effects on both the brain and the body have never been studied in animals, let alone humans. Which leads us, nicely, to another of yesterday's fallacies:

"Trust me, [professional athletes] all know the risks now. And if they don't, they should."

On the contrary, no one knows the risks now. All anyone knows are the dangers that have been thus far discovered, and there are probably many more. Doubtless, many professional athletes think that if they are judicious -- for instance, if they use steroids under the supervision of a highly regarded trainer like, oh, Greg Anderson -- that they can avoid harm.

But Melloni's most recent studies on hamsters suggests otherwise. After just one week of juicing -- the equivalent, he reckons, of what a human user might typically do in a year -- the animals turn ferociously aggressive. Worse, substantial, long-lasting changes occur in their brains. Levels of serotonin -- which reduces aggression and, in humans, prevents depression -- go way down. This is your brain on steroids.

But I'm far less worried about the brains of professional athletes than I am about the half-a-million or so American teenagers who now use these drugs, according to the National Institutes of Health. Do they understand the risks? Or do they hop onto the Internet, as I just did, google the words "legal steroids" and read something like this:

    "GAIN INCREDIBLE MUSCLE SIZE AND STRENGTH! GET HARD AND ULTRA RIPPED! All products are packaged and shipped very discretely. OBTAIN THEM LEGALLY ... Read below to discover how!"

That doesn't sound very dangerous, does it? Especially if you're a teenager, and all of your sports heroes are taking steroids, and doing so with a tacit blessing from ESPN's Writers' Bloc.

"Studies say that the average life expectancy of an NFL player is around 20 years less than the average male. Does that stop you from enjoying football every Sunday? Go to the NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony and watch how many of these former gladiators are now limping around or using a cane. Does that make you want to ban tackling?"

No. It makes me want to ban steroids. If getting blasted by Art Donovan can take 20 years off of your life, imagine what a hit from Donovan on steroids would have cost. Football is a dangerous game, but its danger ought to at least be limited by the natural capabilities of the human body to inflict harm. As shown above, steroids may increase that capability by as much as 50 percent.

"I would hope that all athletes would have the good sense to avoid using steroids because of the long-term price that Lyle Alzado and so many others have paid."

The wretched death of Lyle Alzado is a good reason to avoid steroids. But there's actually a much better reason.

Pope estimates that roughly 10 percent of steroid users are subject to "'roid rage" -- bursts of irrational, uncontrollable fury. He has documented numerous crimes that, he believes, might not have happened had the perpetrators not been juiced. These include a corrections officer who kidnapped and shot a store clerk, because she joked about charging him for using her telephone; a construction worker who impulsively picked up a hitchhiker, drove him to a nearby woods, hog-tied him and beat him to death with a 2-by-4; and a teenager who, with no prior record of criminal behavior before using steroids, flew into a jealous rage and stabbed his girlfriend to death with a kitchen knife.

So, what do you say, guys? Still think we should just "let them eat steroids?"

"The minute we come with a sophisticated test to detect steroids, some guy in a lab coat is coming up with an even more sophisticated way to mask steroids ... I give up."

You give up?! For crying out loud, scientists recently mapped the entire human genome. Do you really think they're incapable of coming up with better ways of finding dope residue in a bottle of pee?

It is true that a few valiant, overworked steroid-tracking scientists have had a hard time keeping up with some very inventive junk peddlers. But the reason for that is simple: Our society has yet to give them sufficient resources to confront their enemies. For instance, despite the magnitude of the steroid problem, Melloni reckons that he is one of just a handful American researchers conducting laboratory research on how steroids affect the brain.

You give up? Listen, steroids are destroying sports and killing people, all across America, right now, as you sit reading this.

We may lack the will to stop their spread; but let's not pretend that we lack the ability.

I, for one, am not ready to give up yet. I just can't muster the cynicism.


From Jeff Merron:

"How different, really, is a performance-enhancing drug from an antidepressant that allows you to 'be yourself'?"

This one popped out at me, because I have taken antidepressants and I know plenty of people who have, also.

So, how different? Barry Bonds taking a performance-enhancing drug is like Demi Moore getting a boob job -- a noticeable improvement over greatness. But antidepressants don't provide improvements over greatness; when they work well -- I'm generalizing here -- they allow otherwise debilitated people to function somewhat normally in society.

I've no doubt that antidepressants like Prozac have helped some pro athletes perform better on the field, because they're better able to cope with life off the field. But antidepressants, when they work, make the whole person better -- they don't improve athletic ability.

There are lots of things players "take" that probably help them perform better -- they take a rest, they take in a movie, they take out beautiful women, they take in food prepared carefully, and especially for them. I'd put antidepressants (for those who are depressed) in a similar category -- a mild boost to make life more bearable, or more sane, or more liveable.

If you're not depressed, Prozac isn't going to help you at all. As opposed to steroids -- if you're big, they'll help you get bigger, if you're strong, they'll help you get stronger.

In other words, huge difference.