King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Are steroids harmful? Do fans care if athletes are doped? The readers write about drugs and chime in on ESPN's "Playmakers."


Salon Staff
November 6, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

There hasn't been enough intelligent commentary around here lately, so it must be time to hear what you readers have to say.

Tim Fogarty, who runs the Web site Muscle Memory: The Internet Bodybuilding Database, takes exception to Monday's column about the designer steroid THG, which mentioned the health risks of anabolic steroids.

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"While any drug can be abused, there is no scientific evidence that indicates that the doses used by athletes causes any kind of long term damage," he writes. "Anabolic steroids have been used by bodybuilders, weight lifters and other athletes since the late 1940s. Anabolic steroids were pretty much mandatory to compete at the national level in bodybuilding since about 1960. There is no scientific evidence that these athletes have diseases such as liver failure, kidney failure, or cancer, at rates any different than athletes who have not taken anabolic steroids."

Fogarty goes on to say that while anabolic steroids may "aggravate prostate cancer" because the body creates too much estrogen in response to too much testosterone, "an estrogen inhibitor taken with the testosterone will prevent that."

I'm not qualified to debate this issue, so I called Dr. Gary Wadler, an internist who's an expert on the use of drugs in sports, and read him the entirety of Fogarty's e-mail.

"I know where he's coming from, but he's wrong in fact and wrong in substance and wrong in conclusion," Wadler said with a laugh. "But it's a well-crafted letter."

He said hormones are unique among drugs in that adverse effects may not show up for decades. Researchers are just now finding out about increased breast cancer rates for women undergoing hormone replacement therapy for menopause, for example. "That was a therapeutic use, long term," Wadler said. "It took many studies over decades to finally learn the truth about estrogens. I don't want to have to go through that experience with testosterone."

Turning to the anabolic androgenic steroids that athletes use, Wadler said, "I would agree the issue about cancer has been overstated." But he said steroid use can be disastrous, even discounting any dangers from injecting steroids under unsterile conditions. He listed adverse effects associated with anabolic steroid abuse, and he was talking for a long time. The list included sudden cardiac death, arrhythmia, the alteration of cholesterol metabolism, weakened tendons and the permanent closing of growth plates in adolescents.

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"In terms of psychiatric aspects, there have been suicides," he said. "Because of the so-called steroid rage or aggressive behavior, it's been involved in a number of homicide defenses. It clearly effects in certain people aggressive-type behavior. And, something underappreciated, it has a dependency quality. Although it's not like heroin and cocaine and cigarettes, there is a dependency, and people have difficulty getting off it. They have joint pains when they get off it. They go back on it even though they wish they didn't, but they're compelled. And I can go on and on."

He called anabolic steroids "dangerous snake oil."

"As a practicing physician," he said, "I have great trepidation when I order steroids of any sort for any period of time. I with great trepidation administer those hormones to anybody."

Moving on, I praised Sunday's New York Times piece detailing the U.S. Olympic testing lab's efforts at identifying THG and developing a test for it. A reader points out that ESPN the Magazine beat the Times to that story with two excellent pieces, one in June by Shaun Assael and one in the current edition by Assael and Peter Keating.

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Reader David Lavictoire asks, "Why is an athlete's health only an issue when she's abusing drugs? Sports played at the highest competitive level is inherently unhealthy, and I'm willing to bet there are stats out there to back it up. We idolize teams and players who go the extra mile to win, even at the cost of their own health. Steroids and other performance enhancers are just one more way to maximize performance based on effort, it's not a shortcut to success. If athletes want to do drugs in addition to breaking their bodies in other ways, who are we to try and stop them? No fan cares about what a football player does to his body when he puts it in front of a 260-pound linebacker. We call it 'courage,' not asinine stupidity, when a player with a crippling injury freezes it so he can stay in the game a little longer."

I go back and forth between a strict libertarian sort of "legalize everything" view and the idea that there really should be controls, that we should protect the spirit of fair competition. As I pointed out to Lavictoire, I wrote a piece three years ago asking basically the same question when I was in a libertarian sort of mood.

A few other comments on steroids:

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"What would be really surprising is if a majority of pro athletes weren't already using performance enhancing drugs." (Mario Escamilla)

"Let me just add an observation about why the 'integrity of the sport' -- whether it's the coach's peccadilloes or the player's predilections -- is important to the average fan. Let's say I tune in to a Saturday afternoon college football game ... I generally could give a rat's ass about either team; knowing little about them, I have no predisposed rooting interest. I'm only watching because it's Saturday afternoon ... However, if I know one program has a great graduation rate, or a history of crooked coaches or whatever else, it gives me a reason to root for/against a particular team, making that game more interesting to watch." (Tim Howe)

"What I object to is the fundamental unfairness. Both for the honest athletes out there who struggle night after night and are probably berated by fans and commentators alike for not being able to 'keep up,' but also for the sports heroes and record holders of earlier times. If I was to find out that Sosa, Bonds and McGwire got their home run records based on performance-enhancing drugs, then I think it's only fair to give the home run title back to Roger Maris." (Eric Pastoral)

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"I love baseball more than any other sport. I'm not bothered about who is or isn't juiced. Those who say that 'the records are tainted' fit in the category of day only baseball, two leagues with eight teams, no playoffs and no designated hitter. The game is still good. The story lines are as compelling as ever. Juiced or not, this past year was one of the best postseasons ever." (Frank Bowen)

About the ESPN show "Playmakers," which has the NFL steaming, Ross Barentyne-Truluck writes, "How pathetic is it that the National Felons League is upset about a soap opera? I mean, is TLA Video trying to shut down 'Skin'? What the show needs more of (any of) is full-frontal nudity."

Chris DuPre joins NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in condemning ESPN for airing "Playmakers," but for a different reason. He writes that his 4-year-old son "is wild about sports and really enjoys when we can watch ESPN together. He keeps asking when he can see 'Playmakers.' Well, never, if I have a call. It's really annoying that ESPN decided to go into the 'edgy' gutter during early prime time." Noting that the previous week's episode airs at 7 p.m. Mountain and Central time, DuPre writes, "Putting a show rated MA on at 7 on a network, even a basic cable network, that actively courts kids is shameful. I'm no prude, but I won't expose my preschooler to 'Playmakers.' I'm ashamed at ESPN for taking such a low route, and they're offending some of their biggest viewers. Oh, well, we're not 18-34, so I guess we don't matter."

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