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Monday, November 17, 2003
 



SHOULD THE SPORTS WORLD JUST GIVE UP AND LEGALIZE STEROIDS?


Today, Page 2 introduces a new feature called The Writers' Bloc, which will appear every weekday at about 4 p.m. ET. The Writers' Bloc is a group of 16 contentious writers from ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine and Not-ESPN The World who will do battle with each other over the hot sports issues of the day. Think of them as 16 wildcats locked in the same large canvas bag without enough food to go around.

In the first installment, the Bloc leads off with a column on steroids by Robert Lipsyte, who says it's time to give up all this "policing" -- followed by some feisty commentary from his fellow Bloc members.

Let them eat ... THG
By Robert Lipsyte
The Writers' Bloc

Looking for laughs in Seoul before the 1988 Olympics, I announced a steroid test so simple, so inexpensive, so accurate, it could have signaled the end of sports as we know them -- which would have been a good thing, as we later found out. Lipsyte himself would stand in the locker room and personally compare the naked bodies of athletes who were about to compete with 8x10 glossy photographs of them taken no more than four years earlier.

Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson, right, had a big edge on the field in the 1988 Summer Olympics.
Under such circumstances, comparisons are obvious. That new jaw, those unnaturally ridged muscles, the haunted eyes of a shuttered house. Not to mention the jittery posturing and the pimpled back. Before I would actually ban someone from the Games, I would also check the numbers -- a substantial improvement in performance would be the clinching evidence.

Today, I am nostalgic for those hopeful times. Four Oakland Raiders have just failed a test for a newly detectable banned steroid, THG. How many dozens (hundreds?) of other pro football players had better medical advice and cycled their drugs more discreetly? In baseball, steroid use has become enough of a problem to introduce punitive testing. Will we have to revisit that summer of wonder when Big Mac and Sammy diverted a shamed nation? And the nation's most famous former sportscaster and prescription drug abuser, Rush Limbaugh, returned to his radio show today. Perhaps he will show us the way.

Actually, I don't much care about the NFL players and the baseball players and the Olympians who have juiced for success. I say, Let them go! Let them do what they want. It's their bodies.

Yet, ahhh, I could have stopped the plague back then. Who knows, maybe I might have prevented the deaths of Lyle and Flo-Jo.

But no. My employer at that time, NBC News, was not amused by my naked steroid test, and would not let me offer my plan to the network air, merely to a few affiliate stations hungry for what they framed as contrariness. After all, NBC Sports was broadcasting the Olympics, and this was "way off message." Thousands of their advertisers rocked in the harbor on luxury boats. I was sent to rehab where the Execs, kindly, patiently, offered reality therapy. Sports fans, those "people we fly over," want thrills, records, fierce competition. They want athletes who have "a fire in their bellies" and "a will to win." They want jocks who will do anything to get bigger and better so they can entertain us.

Network Execs are not dumb. The successful ones know their audience. They told me that sports fans don't care if athletes get their performance enhancement from the point of a needle, just so long as they really do go higher, faster, longer, harder.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire
Would Sammy and Big Mac still be laughing if we could see their drug tests from 1998?
"Why are we blaming sports?" asked the Execs. Look at politics. Look at business. Look at our fall schedule.

You have to stay focused, they said. Keep your eye on your particular prize. We and the advertisers have to offer exciting programming. Sports officials have to make sure the games go on. The fans didn't really care if jocks are juiced because athletes are not real people to them, they are objects of fantasy. And as their bodies expand to cartoon proportions, fans can feel better about themselves; of course, I can't do what they do, those guys are a different species. The media doesn't really care what happens so long as something new happens.

With all those people not caring, athletes have little choice if they want to stay competitive.

Meet the Bloc
Here's the full Writers' Bloc roster:

From Page 2: Jim Caple, Patrick Hruby, Eric Neel, David Schoenfield, Dan Shanoff, Ralph Wiley.

From ESPN The Magazine: Eric Adelson, Shaun Assael, Luke Cyphers, Tom Friend, Peter Keating, Tim Keown, Steve Wulf.

Other hired guns: Gerri Hirshey, Chuck Hirshberg, Robert Lipsyte.

So let them just do it.

It's too late.

It might have been too late longer than we think. When I came back from Seoul (first thing I did was quit NBC), I started talking to people about performance-enhancing drugs. Several old friends, former Olympic medal-winners, were eager to tell me about the steroids they took in the '50s and how much more effective were the drugs they were giving their kids.

When I appeared shocked, they assured me that it was all in the careful cycling. These were good medicines. They wouldn't make you super if you didn't have the freaky genes, but they would help you rebound from injury faster and train harder to build more muscle.

My real education came from the most sophisticated drug users in sports, the professional bodybuilders. They howled with laughter when I asked them if they thought Mark McGwire used steroids. That's candy, they said. They thought he used human growth hormone. The body builders used everything, and were only tested for diuretics, which can kill you the same day. Many of them use blood thickeners to get muscles showing right through skin.

If we're looking for villains here (I'm not), they are the crooked doctors, in no short supply, who are also smart enough to stay ahead of the overworked, underpaid, unappreciated, misappropriated testers.

Yes, misappropriated. They should be immediately pulled out of the professional and college labs and deployed where they are needed -- in high schools and middle schools.

Let the pros and the semi-pros make their adult decisions about their careers. Are they cheating? Your call. Does it force clean athletes who want to stay competitive to take drugs, too? So let them deal with it, let them stand up and police their own locker rooms, finger the druggies, kick their butts. There is so much faux rap posturing, camp violence, wolfing in sports, it would great to see those coddled sissies draw a line in the sand about something important.

But it's their problem, not mine.

My problem, and yours, is saving the generation coming up behind them. To use drugs, kids need the complicity, or at least the denial and inattention, of their parents and coaches. Stop them. Stop them by de-pressurizing youth sports, stop them with zero tolerance for drug use, stop them with honesty. There has been too much reefer madness here. Steroids will make you bigger and better. We're not exactly sure just how harmful they are.

Will this stop the Raiders, the home-run sluggers, the Olympians? In the very long run, it might. But it doesn't matter right now. That game is lost. And the game we need to win has already started.

The Bloc responds:


Shaun Assael
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Let's take SOME responsibility

Libertarianism is fine for cocktail parties and France, Bob. And cynical libertarianism is fine for sports writers who've glimpsed the other side of the executive suite. But, please, lets draw the line at turning cynical libertarianism into a wild public health parlor game.

Let them just do it? Sure, and you turn sports into another corporation that only pays lip service to doing the right thing. The SEC turned a blind eye while mutual fund managers grew rich on insider trades. The Bush Administration let its friends enter the energy industry in California. Now we're going to let sports walk away from its obligations, too?

How about we actually get a little political on this one, Bob? How about we get our hands dirty? How about we keep the pressure up on baseball to do better than that appalling five-strikes-and-we'll-think-about-calling-you-out-rule?

How about lobbying the sports "unions" to join the movement begun by the World Anti-Doping Agency for a single anti-doping standard across all sports? How about forcing Don Fehr to resign as co-chair of the Senate commission on the Olympics, where he continues to forge a disgraceful double standard between what is allowable in baseball and all other Olympic sports?

How about we string up the proven cheaters, and banish them from the record books?

Sure, we can do it for the cheeeeeldren.

But we can also do it to show corporate America that we're still willing to hold someone accountable for something.


Chuck Hirshberg
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: It's the testing, stupid!

Bob, I'm a big fan of yours, have been for years, but I wonder if those network suits didn't manage to infect you with their own unique strain of mental streptococcus. Declarations like "sports fans don't care" are just the sort of mass-media lowest-common-denominator crap they love to spew in order to avoid taking responsibility for their sins.

Call me a romantic wimp (actually, please don't), but I believe sports fans are actually millions and millions of unique individuals, most of whom probably know very little about the effects of anabolic-androgenic steroids. To suggest that the public's mind has been made up on this is, at the very least, premature. And even if the fans really don't care ... then who cares? My scoutmaster told me I still have an obligation to stand up for what's right, even if I have to stand alone.

So, here I stand: You, for starters, are absolutely right when you say that the deeper problem lies in high schools and junior highs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of high school students have used steroids at least once. But why? I am pretty certain it's because they want to look like their juiced-up role models in professional sports. So one of the best ways to attack the problem in schools is to attack it in, say, Major League Baseball.

It's often said that steroid users hurt no one but themselves. But science suggests otherwise. Harvard researchers have documented numerous cases in which "roid rage" appears to have inspired the most ghastly violent crimes.

With steroid use exploding in our schools, we could be facing a monster public health (and safety) crisis here. And we have a special responsibility not to abandon young athletes who want to stay clean. "Let them police their own locker-rooms," you say, and "finger the druggies." How in God's name are they supposed to do that? Let's assume for a moment that a young athlete is willing to "finger" all of the biggest and strongest guys in the locker room, for that's who the steroid users are bound to be -- guys who may well be suffering from steroid-induced psychosis, to boot. That doesn't take courage; it takes suicidal tendencies, but let that go. The hard reality is, finger-pointing doesn't work. It is libelous to accuse somebody of steroid use unless you can prove it, and you can't prove it without testing.

So that's what we need, dammit: testing. Not the preposterous parody of testing that MLB has in place, which allows most steroid users to clean up or mask before the exam. But year-round random testing, administered by someone not connected with the sport. That'll make a dent, not only in pro baseball, but in high school locker rooms across the country.


Eric Neel
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: The fans DO care

Bob, as Chuck suggests, it isn't true that fans don't care. Fans are smarter and more complicated than that. They're capable of feeling and thinking many things at once. The athletes don't exist in any real world for them, because, to some extent, the athletes don't exist in any real world, period.

Fans don't get to set drug policy, negotiate contracts and labor agreements, or sit in doctors' offices and weight rooms. In all of these places, we know things go on that we don't like, and we know we don't have much control over them. So what we feel is a kind frustration, and ultimately, a profound sort of ambivalence. We love our sports, we admire and marvel at what our favorite athletes can do, and at the same time, we're left with doubts, suspicions, and logical certainties that undercut those feelings.

We don't feel better about ourselves as athletes get bigger, stronger and faster, we feel more confused, ambivalent and torn. We feel more like what we've always known or thought we've known isn't any more or never was. We feel a sense of loss. We feel admiration and contempt, respect and pity in equal measures. And if any of us have kids, or are in any way close to kids, we feel scared, too.


Luke Cyphers
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Let 'em use aluminum bats while you're at it ...

People do care about doping. If they didn't, track & field would still be covered by major sports media more than once every four years or every doping scandal. You can chart the precipitous decline in interest in American track, and in print and TV coverage of it, against the increasing perception through the 1980s and '90s that everybody in the sport cheated, and not just the East Germans.

Moreover, people should care. First of all, it's an equipment issue. Think of drug testing as a curb on aluminum bats, or on the "trampoline effect" of a golf club, or on the size of a goalie's pads -- all issues legitimately regulated by sports leagues with little or no outcry from the competitors.

Second, it is a health issue. Most of these substances were developed as medicine, and their use should be regulated by professionals, not winked at in service to some muddle-headed libertarian ideal. Basically, if you allow an anything-goes system, you're allowing anyone to practice medicine and pharmacy without a license. Such self-medication, it can be argued, led to the death of Steve Bechler, not to mention dozens of pro wrestlers and bodybuilders. And it does hurt people beyond the users, in the form of increased insurance costs and taxpayer dollars. "Let those who ride decide" works as long as no helmet-less motorcyclist wrecks his motorcycle and becomes a brain-injured ward of the state. Then you and I have to decide how to pay for him. Same goes with juice abuse.

And finally, about the kids. Teams sell unneeded stadiums to the taxpaying public by arguing sports provides some kind of community spirit and moral high ground. Fair play, effort, teamwork. Well, let them live up to their end of the bargain by at least striving for a clean game.

Pollyanna lives!


Steve Wulf
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Kiss my asterisk

There is a school of thought that the recent home run records of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire should be the ones with an asterisk since they came in the Golden Age Of Steroids. While there is no doubt that steroids -- by whatever name -- are insidious and dangerous, they are part of the evolution of sports, the process involving every athlete who seeks a competitive edge. Now it's THG, but once it was cocaine, and before that amphetamines, and before that caffeine and nicotine. (I've got an old ad somewhere of Johnny Vander Meer crediting his consecutive no-hitters to Camel cigarettes.) The players who ingested these things were wrong, but unless you put something in place that says they're wrong, you can't punish them.

If you put an asterisk next to Bonds, you may as well put one besides every player who had the benefit of the conditioning coaches and workout facilities that Maris didn't have. Steroids are evil, but they weren't even illegal in the baseball sense.

Then again, I've never been able to figure out baseball sense. Why is Gaylord Perry glorified for doctoring the ball and Sammy Sosa villified for doctoring his bat? If a player's health is paramount -- the crux of the steroid matter -- why not outlaw the slider, which cripples arms?

Baseball can cite chapter and verse as to what a balk is. But it has never figured out what cheating is.


Patrick Hruby
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Keep those 'roids to yourself

It really doesn't trouble me when people choose to harm themselves, so long as they're not harming others in the process -- and as far as I know, second-hand 'roids won't shrink your testicles. (Caveat: I'm not a chemist, though my father is a rather renowned one).


Chuck Hirshberg
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Lift those needles now, boys!

Have you guys considered that by making steroids legal for all adults, you're giving college coaches license to essentially order their players to use 'em? I can hear the coachspeak now: "No, no, of course we don't require our athletes to use anything against their will. We just want our guys to be the best they can possibly be, and, for some, that might mean using a few perfectly legal supplements to help nature along."


Patrick Hruby
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Viagra, penile enlargements ... and bigger pecs!

The game we need to win isn't just under way. It's late in the fourth quarter. And we're down by a touchdown. With 99 yards in front of us.

It's all well and good to preach abstinence. To ask that our kids eschew juicing in favor of good ol' fashioned natural ability. To set up on-campus urinalysis labs and yank Tommy Touchdown out of homeroom with a sample cup in hand, the better to check for elevated HGH levels. Problem is, our entire culture says otherwise. Ours is an era of better living through chemistry. Of penis-enlargement surgery and Extreme Makeovers. Of happiness being a prescription slip -- or a trip to the local GNC -- away.

Inattentive in class? Pop a pill. Unhappy with your cheekbones? Have 'em rebuilt, like an old room on "Trading Spaces." Need some extra pop in your home run swing? Throw back some creatine, or one of a dozen other Congressionally sanctioned drugs, ahem, "dietary supplements."

Sure, there are plenty of potentially nasty side effects. Such as disease, death and looking like Michael Jackson. But who has time to read the fine print, especially when we're busy gulping down Viagra and shooting biotoxins into our wrinkled foreheads?

Fifty years from now, today's performance-enhancers -- and I do mean ALL kinds -- are going to look as primitive as a jar of leeches. We can tell our kids to Just Say No. But given the example we've set, don't expect them to listen.

Lipsyte's final word
Who do I have to sleep with to get out of the WB's large canvas bag? If I had known your wildcats were this fierce and thoughtful, I would have stayed longer at the cocktail party with my cynical libertarians.

Shaun, don't you think some sports -- certainly Division I basketball and football -- are already among those "that only pay lip service to doing the right thing."? And who is the "we" to keep the pressure on baseball and to "string up the proven cheaters"? Some media lynch mob? Chuck, Eric, and the populist wing: Which fans care about this? The ones who painted their faces blue or the ones who ran out on the field?

Nope, this train has left the station. Chasing it on horseback, screaming at it, is a waste of time. Luke makes a great point about the cost to us all of anyone's illness or death, which is even more reason to become citizens rather than media mobsters and to make sure that the communities producing the NEXT generation of athlete are clean. Put the pressure on (and string up) the middle-school and high school parents and coaches who are pressuring kids to go for that college scholarship, that pro draft pick, at any cost. That's not as sexy and safe as wagging a finger at Tags or Bud, but it's the only hope.

The larger society makes saving the kids impossible? That's backward, Patrick. Where do you think the values are formed? One day Dad gets hard on Viagra and Mom gets soft on Zoloft, so then Junior thinks it's OK to pop speed between chukkers? Nah, it started when Dad and Mom found little helpers in high school and took that sensibility with them to the bigs.

So let's kick butt. We're the Writers Bloc Wildcats (I want a cap.)