We Can't Avoid the 'Roids. (2/16/05)

Everybody is talking about athletes and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), such as steroids. Who did them, who didn't, who has quit using, who hasn't, and who is suffering health consequences because of past use? Do these drugs really work? Are they really that harmful?

Does their use constitute "cheating"?

Which is worse for baseball? A steroid scandal or the end of the long ball era?

Will the fans learn to appreciate "small ball" again? The careful accumulation of base hits, sacrifices and steals pitted against impenetrable defense? Will they settle for 3-2 victories?

Among all the commentators, including the public, there seems to be a certain amount of band-wagon-jumping-on over PEDs, with people condemning their use out of hand without considering any of the tough questions, such as distinguishing between what constitutes a PED, and thus cheating, and what constitutes a dietary supplement and thus part of a good training regimen? Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), now a banned steroid, was originally promoted as a nutritional supplement. THG's distributor was the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which has since been closed down and its owner indicted for selling illegal drugs and laundering money.

Was the "nutritional supplement" label always a ruse and everybody knew what they were really taking? Is anything that comes out of a needle automatically wrong?

Norman Fost, director of the medical ethics program at the University of Wisconsin, argues that when steroids are used properly they mostly have small, temporary side-effects, are not life-threatening, and are less dangerous than just participating in a violent sport such as football. And they work. You get stronger faster, your injuries heal faster. They really do give elite players an edge.

But the use of PEDs is cheating and, therefore, wrong, isn't it? No one considers high altitude training to be cheating and it is common in cycling and other sports, but it has the exact same effect--an increase in red blood cells and thus an increase in oxygen delivery to the muscles--as the banned steroid EPO. How about training in an artificial atmosphere chamber than simulates high altitude? Cheating or not?

Is it the needle that makes it cheating?

To many of the bandwagon-jumpers-on, it is as simple as that. It's a drug and, therefore, wrong.

In youth sports, it is up to parents and teachers to decide what is cheating and what is not. Most Olympic-type sports are under the jurisdiction of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which publishes a list of banned substances and conducts frequent, unannounced tests. For professional sports, it ultimately is up to players, coaches, league officials and team owners to decide what is cheating and what is not, and what sanctions are appropriate for violators. If the majority of participants in a professional sport agree that the use of a particular drug is not cheating, then it isn't.

Many sports have wrestled with equipment issues, defining what can and cannot be used in the interest of fairness and preserving the "nature of the game." Professional tennis has banned certain kinds of rackets, golf certain kinds of clubs. Major league baseball uses only wooden bats. NASCAR has all kinds of rules about what people can and cannot do to make their cars go faster, even though going faster is the whole point of the sport. Every sport has rules and cheating, by definition, is any attempt to gain an advantage by breaking a rule and not getting caught.

Would fans who categorically condemn the use of PEDs think differently if they regarded their Viagra and Prozac as the non-sports equivalents? It's not the same because there, all is fair. Sports are different. Sports have rules. Most elite athletes profess to love their sports yet many, perhaps most, disrespect the rules.

It would be good if the steroid scandal prompts a broader discussion about cheating in sports generally, and the extent to which cheating of various kinds is ignored, tolerated and even encouraged, especially in professional sports.

It seems that in professional sports, dating from the earliest days when professional athletes were mostly gamblers and con men, the guiding principle has been, "it's only cheating if you get caught." So we admire pitchers who get away with throwing spitters, or players who are deft at fouling in basketball, or committing pass interference or holding in football. Most players, coaches, officials and fans regard those incidents of cheating--and the penalties that result from getting caught--as part of the game. Wrong, but not bad.

We talk about "professional fouls," and about a basketball team having "a foul to give." Is holding cheating? Is there a fundamental difference between holding and roughing the passer, or unsportsmanlike conduct? In each case a penalty is called and yards are stepped off. Are they all "part of the game"? If not, why not, and is that just your opinion or a universal understanding of the rules? What is the dividing line between a rule infraction that is "part of the game" and one that is unacceptable cheating?

When Sammy Sosa gets caught using a corked bat, he gets fined and suspended for a few appearances. He explains it as an "accident," saying he sometimes uses a corked bat to put on a show for fans before games, but if using a corked bat is cheating and cheating is intolerable, then there should never be a corked bat anywhere in the ball park and anyone caught in possession of one, let alone using one in a game, should be tossed out of baseball for good, not punished with a fine and brief suspension.

That pervasive attitude of "it's only cheating if you get caught" leads naturally and inevitably to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In all professional sports, it has been treated exactly the same way as Sammy and his corked bat. The only difference is that, because it's drugs, people are quicker to get on their high horses about it. It has been observed that the leagues are much more concerned about recreational drugs--pot, cocaine, ecstasy--than they are about PEDs. Players exposed for using pot or cocaine hurt the brand, while players who use PEDs help the brand by making the show more spectacular and, hence, more entertaining.

Who is responsible? Almost everyone: players, coaches, owners, media, and the fans. Is there any coach in any sport at any level who does not teach players how to cheat without getting caught? Do fans really demand a clean game or do they primarily want a good show, and a local winner, no matter what it takes? Most of all, are there any players in the professional ranks who will stand up and demand that their sport define cheating clearly and unequivocally, demand a zero-tolerance policy toward it, and make fairness and the rejection of cheating a principle at least as important as toughness, competitiveness and the other qualities we are supposed to admire in elite athletes?

Professional athletes have never been good role models, because even the best of them tend to be pampered, selfish, and socially and emotionally immature, never developing beyond adolescence. That is part of what makes them so attractive to us, because they never grow up. We like to watch professional athletes, on and off the field, because they get away with things we cannot, whether it's playing a child's game for a living, or having sex with countless anonymous women, or retiring rich at age 35.

Sadly, the people who suffer most from the misplaced lionization of athletes are poor kids, who have few if any positive alternative role models, or who see "straight" adults (be it their parents or others) working like dogs and struggling to earn a living, getting nowhere, while athletes, musicians, movie stars and gangsters get rich and don't seem to do any real work.

There is no real solution to that, because even well-educated, gainfully-employed middle class people (okay, mostly men) fantasize about being pro athletes, rock stars, or movie stars, if not gangsters too. About the only thing you can do is educate kids to the fact that only very few of the "wanna-bees" in those fields ever reach the top and that the ease with which they seem to get there is an illusion. In all cases (except, maybe, gangsters), you have to be extremely talented, work very hard, and get several lucky breaks. Some kids do get the message about hard work and start to understand about the major culling that takes place at every level. Some get the picture before it's too late. Some don't.

Maybe somebody should start a Hall of Pain to go along with the Hall of Fame, that would tell the stories of all the lives ruined because people thought sports was their ticket and didn't prepare themselves to do anything else. Then again, who wants to see that?

Sports at the highest levels had negative health implications even before PEDs, whether it be from chronic injuries, addiction to stimulants and pain killers, or obesity after the playing career is over. Living in a world that encourages their self-indulgence, many athletes smoke cigarettes, drink excessively, use illegal recreational drugs, and engage in unhealthy sexual practices. One of the many ironies is that sport is sold at the youth levels as teaching the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle when in many cases it teaches and facilitates exactly the opposite.

That is why it's a shame that so few people will take this opportunity to widen the dialogue to include all of these issues, because they are all related. Many people even forget that the use of steroids and other PEDs was neither illegal nor banned by professional sports until recently, that the use of painkillers is still permitted and widespread, that stimulants are banned but still used (and nobody is talking about them) and 99% of all athletes, trainers, coaches, journalists and fans still have the attitude that it is not cheating unless you get caught, that whatever personal, moral reservations one may have about such behavior are overshadowed by the need to compete and win.

2005, Charles Kendrick Cowdery, All Rights Reserved.