Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Inevitability of Performance Enhancers...


Anabolic steroids are front page news lately, especially in baseball, even though football, basketball and hockey are almost certainly no less rife with these products.

Baseball has dealt with the issue far more amusingly than have the other sports, no doubt, in part, to having been embarrassed by Congress a couple years ago and partly because baseball’s numbers, its records are the stuff of legend. Everyone knows the records set by Ruth, Maris, broken by Aaron, then Bonds and McGuire, then Bonds respectively, there are no records in other sports that carry that kind of weight – not Wilt’s 100 points in a game, not 10,000 yards rushing in a football career, etc.

Until 2003, the MLB Players Association flat out refused any kind of mandatory drug testing and the owners were unable to force it on them.

Then, in 2003, the MLBPA allowed “random,” anonymous testing, with the stipulation that if more than 5% came back positive, tests for performance enhancers would be allowed.

Of course more than 5% of the “random” tests came back positive and that was that, UNTIL, perhaps the game’s most recognizable active player, Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez’s positive 2003 result was leaked and made public recently. The other 103 positive testers are probably waiting for the other shoe to drop.

We’ve learned a lot since the A-Rod scandal broke, (1) Eugene Orza, the MLBPA head called players about to be “randomly” tested to warn them, so they could “cycle off,” (2) the use of performance enhancers is far more widespread than previously thought.

Since the Bonds/Clemens scandal broke MLB has been making the absurd claim that performance enhancers are used by a small minority of the players.


Athletes earn their livings, very good livings for playing children’s games at a very high level, with their bodies.

In a competitive environment, like pro sports, ANY edge is absolutely CRITICAL. If one player finds an edge, none of the others can afford not to find that same edge. In an environment where human growth hormones and other hormones (steroids) are being used, “IF player X won’t use them, players A, B, C and D will and player Y will ultimately fall behind.”

Consider these two things, (1) if the top players in the game, chasing records would “put their bodies at some unknown degree of risk,” isn’t the pressure on marginal players, players who need every edge just to make it into the league even greater...and (2) why haven’t the non-users spoken out and complained about all this cheating?

The first is obvious and can be proven that by looking at today’s top high school athletes, many of whom have already started a litany of performance enhancers, and the second question can only be answered, because “the cheating (such as it is) is so rampant, widespread, that every player is using something. That’s why the idea of “Those caught should all be banned,” as it punishes a few for a “crime” engaged in by all.

Performance enhancing products from anabolic steroids, to human growth hormone, to other products have morphed into a multi-BILLION dollar a year industry that started out with body builders, moved to fringe events like wrestling and have since been made safer, easier to take AND harder to test for.

Even a cursory look at the difference between Barry Bonds’ and Roger Clemens’ results and Mark Maguire’s highlights the advancements in the field. In Maguire’s day steroid use grew muscles too big for the tendons and ligaments to hold to the bone and guys like Mark Maguire suffered through some incredibly debilitating injuries – muscles shearing off the bone at the origin or insertion.

Neither Barry Bonds, nor Roger Clemens had any of those problems despite an occasional bit of “roid rage” on their both their parts. The joke used to be, “Clemens and Bonds must have paid more for the ‘good stuff’”, but the fact is, the professional athletes of the past quarter century have been the guinea pigs for performance enhancers.

A-Rod, while toned and buff, is NOT overly muscled, he’s lost none of his quickness and flexibility, in short, he “doesn’t look like a steroid user.” None of the physical speculation that surrounded Bonds and Clemens, GROWING more muscled as they got older, their heads getting bigger and instead of their athletic prowess declining, it actually improved with age...something that doesn’t normally happen to athletes. Skills generally decline with age.

The entire issue is grossly misunderstood and wrongly maligned. Today, we live in a world where regular, everyday people (not just famous athletes) are treated with HRT (hormone replacement therapy). Human growth hormone is readily available in other countries and it’s been seen as a veritable “fountain of youth,” when used properly.

Look, people behave within the strictures of the age in which they live. Training methods improve, dietary information grows, equipment becomes lighter and more supportive and medical science advances.

In the end, the so-called “steroid controversy” is really no controversy at all. Medical science has evolved to the point where we can maintain a longer youth through various performance enhancers, like HRT.

While actual anabolic steroids (especially synthetic steroids) can be readily tested for, there are always newer and more sophisticated “masking agents” being developed to “beat the tests.” Human Growth Hormone is so expensive to test for, it isn’t tested for by major league sports. Various pro-hormones (precursors to actual hormones) aren’t tested for.

In short, the “genie is out of the bottle,” not only in sports, but in society as a whole. We live, we exist now, in a chemically enhanced age. That’s merely an undeniable fact.

In an age when “weekend warriors” are popping OTC pro-hormones and other chemical enhancers, when cops are using these substances to be able to “work the street longer,” it’s the height of denial to think that professional athletes, in such an environment, are not going to be on the cutting edge of such advancements.

Much of the primal fear surrounding steroid use, comes from the earlier age, when some body builders and pro wrestler’s swilled the stuff in mammoth proportions, without any medical guidance. Today’s athletes cycle through a fraction of the amount “old time wrestlers” (and even some modern day ones) use in a month, over the course of a year. The substances have gotten better and more naturally absorbed and utilized by the body.

I’m not saying this is great, and it’s certainly not without its risks, BUT to deny that in THIS age, just about every athlete in every sport, from the minor leagues and Colleges through the pros is using some performance enhancers, is to be woefully na├»ve.

So what to do about baseball’s records?

That’s hard to say, at least for me. I mean, Babe Ruth hit the equivalent of a wet sock out of stadiums that dwarf today’s bandboxes. In one year, had the foul poles been located to where they are today, Ruth, it is said, would’ve hit 115 home runs in a single year! Yet, we didn’t put an asterisk on either Maris’ record (who was a left-handed hitter, when the Yankee stadium right field porch was brought in), nor Hank Aaron’s record, despite the fact that Aaron played the bulk of his career in the slugging-friendly confines of the old Atlanta Braves’ stadium. We didn’t negate the pitching records that came about when the pitcher’s mound was raised – Denny McLain won 30 games in that era.

But should we note the demarcation of “the performance enhanced age”?

Again, that’s also hard to say. When did it legitimately start? At what exact date? Who were the first players to use such enhancers?

Each age is different and the players of that era play under different conditions than the ones before and after. Remembering and appreciating the old records, shouldn’t necessarily negate the ones of the following ages.

P.S. WHY Sports?

I occasionally write about issues involving sports, WHY?

Sports involve the very essence of individualist ideal – competition, both between different teams and between individuals over stats.

In sports, one exceptional individual can often take a mediocre team and turn it into a winner.

Moreover, sports embodies each and every modern political, moral and ethical issue we currently deal with in every other aspect of our lives, from the “greed” of both players and owners, to cheating, to thuggish behavior.

A lot of moral and ethical lessons can be learned through the “morality play” that is professional sports.

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