A not-so-happy ending

Updated: April 12, 2004, 10:39 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

You'd go broke betting against the capacity of some athletes to worm their ways through just about all manner of items available in the general category of gaining an edge, no matter what preponderance of evidence suggests dire long-term effects. We didn't just tumble off the truck from Naive Flats, and even if we had, we've got the BALCO scandal to break our fall.

And so, when they ultimately get around to counting chips and divvying up the take, Monday may not go down in history as the day the trouble stopped.

It's not at all the same as saying Steve Bechler died in vain.

A federal judge's decision not to overrule the national ban on dietary supplements containing ephedra caps a year of what by rights passes as lightning-fast governmental action to strike the sale of a substance already linked to 155 deaths, and that action traces almost directly to the February 2003 death of Bechler during training camp with the Baltimore Orioles.

Major events related to ephedra
1994: Law passed allowing dietary supplements to be sold over the counter with little oversight unless the FDA could prove a clear danger to public health.

1997: Manufacturers blocked an attempt by the FDA to restrict sales of certain dosages of ephedra and to put warning labels on the herb by arguing the agency lacked enough proof of danger.

Sept. 2001: The National Football League became the first major U.S. professional sports league to ban the stimulant. The drug is also banned by the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. The Major League Baseball Players Association later banned ephedra for players with minor-league contracts.

August 2002: The Justice Department began conducting a criminal investigation into whether Metabolife International lied about the safety of ephedra.

Feb. 17, 2003: Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, died of heat stroke one day after collapsing during spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The medical examiner said ephedra contributed to Bechler's heat stroke.

Feb. 28: The FDA ordered labels to be put on products with ephedra warning of the possibility of heart attacks, strokes or death. The agency said it would re-examine a ban.

May 2: Nutritional supplement retailer General Nutrition Centers announced it would stop selling products containing the weight-loss supplement.

May 26: Illinois became the first state to ban ephedra. California followed in October, along with New York in November.

June: The federal government began building a case that could lead to the supplement's ban.

July 1: The Federal Trade Commission announced two companies that promoted ephedra dietary supplements would repay customers $370,000 to resolve federal charges of deceptive advertising.

July 17: The widow of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler sued the manufacturer and the distributor of a dietary supplement containing ephedra for $600 million. The lawsuit also sought a ban on the sale of ephedra-based products.

July: FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan told House members the agency is considering a ban on the drug. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson urged Congress to rewrite a law that rolled back dietary-supplement regulations and to require manufacturers to tell the FDA about potential side effects.

Dec. 30: The Bush administration announced it would ban the herbal weight-loss supplement ephedra from the marketplace because of concerns about its effects on health. The ban would take effect in 60 days.

Bechler was using Xenadrine, an ephedra-laced product, in a desperate effort to lose weight and avoid falling off the Orioles' pitching depth chart. He collapsed on Feb. 16, 2003, and died of heatstroke a day later, his body temperature having spiked to 108 degrees. Later, the manufacturer's insistence to the contrary, a medical examiner concluded that ephedra had indeed played a significant role in the development of the heatstroke.

And that was it, evidently. Years of accumulating evidence as to the potential harmfulness of ephedra had come to no particular end, but the very public case of Steve Bechler was the tipping point. Suddenly, the movement was swift and decisive, warnings followed by lawsuits followed by bans, and ephedra-based dietary supplements almost immediately began to suffer in the marketplace. Sort of makes you wonder what might have been achieved if all that evidence had come tumbling forth sooner.

Bechler's death had the odd effect of both raising the conversation about ephedra and, at least in the sporting sense, standing it sideways. Bechler actually was using Xenadrine as part of a weight-loss effort, which may reflect the larger public marketplace but had little in common with the baseball world. Anecdotally, at least, most of the players who popped Xenadrine or anything like it were essentially using it as speed.

In the end, it didn't matter in the slightest. It was Bechler's death that drove the outrage. It was Bechler's death that prompted the review of where things stood. The tragic tale of a 23-year-old baseball player opened doors that the suffering of other more anonymous consumers couldn't.

And, sure, it guarantees nothing, but you knew that already. In the little self-contained universe of sports, it is safe to assume that, among those actively seeking an edge for whatever reason, their attention merely turned away from ephedra-based products (if indeed they used it to sharpen the old reflexes) and toward something else. BALCO, with its discovery of a previously undetectable steroid-like substance in THG, is the obvious suggestion of that otherworld in which the true cutting-edge experimenters are always one step ahead of the testing lab or the FDA warnings.

Bechler's life, though, will stand for something. It was 10 days after he was pronounced dead that Major League Baseball announced a ban on the substance at the minor-league level. It was 11 days after Bechler's death that the FDA ordered warning labels placed on dietary supplements containing ephedra. It was barely two months later that giant health-supplement retailer GNC said it would stop selling ephedra-based substances. It was two months more that Bechler's widow, Kiley, filed a $600 million lawsuit against the manufacturer and distributor of Xenadrine and asked for a banishment of the products from the marketplace.

Now it comes to Monday's action, when the FDA's ban on ephedra-based supplements, announced in December, was allowed to stand. It was by no means the end of the threat, as other substances with ephedrine-like effects are both approved and marketed, and with a lawsuit still pending by a manufacturer of the product, it's premature even to suggest that there'll never be another Xenadrine-type product sold over the counter again.

But it is a step. It's a significant step that was completed barely a year after Steve Bechler's death, a death that seemed so incomprehensible and pointless at the time. It's small consolation to the family living without Bechler, but it is something. And sometimes, something will have to do.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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