Listening to Congress, the media, and the endless yipping of sports radio,
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Clearly having gotten all the mileage they could out of Janet Jackson’s breast, the press has chosen steroids as the new Weapon of Mass Distraction. But in their efforts to hold up steroids as Public Enemy Number One, all the congressional echo chamber accomplishes is the utter distortion of our attitudes toward sports, competition, and medicine. This is not to say that steroids are Flintstone vitamins and should be put in the drinking water. They can result in some dangerous biochemistry. But the pitchforks and torches surrounding the discussion prevent an honest look at what they are, what they aren’t,
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What’s a Steroid,
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Let’s start with what it’s not: it’s not the source of all evil in the world. It’s not, as baseball commissioner Bud Selig claimed, a "horrible substance that must be eradicated." A steroid is simply synthetically produced testosterone. Scientists have attempted to use testosterone to build muscle going back more than 1,000 years, but the modern era of steroids starts in 1889 when prominent French scientist Charles Edouard Brown Sequard tried to figure out how to increase the strength and mass of workers in the ser vice of the industrial revolution. Brown Sequard began to inject himself with a liquid extract derived from the testosterone of dogs and guinea pigs. He claimed that the injections "increased [his] physical strength and intellectual energy, relieved [his] constipation and even lengthened the arc of [his] urine."
Brown Sequard may sound a likely villain for the next Spider Man sequel. But his experiments were very much aligned with the dominant ideologies of Western Europe and the United States at a time when bosses were trying to figure out exactly how hard an industrial working class could be pushed before they would die. Working people were literally lab rats, and children,
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As the sporting industry exploded in the 1920s, athletic trainers and their charges immediately saw the possibilities of using his research. Even the Big Bambino himself, Babe Ruth, injected himself with extract from a sheep’s testicles, hoping for increased power at the plate (and in the bedroom). He attempted this only once,
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In the 1950s, testosterone was finally produced synthetically and became known as steroids. The first athletes to use steroids were not baseball or even football players, but Olympians. State sponsored steroid regimens were very much a part of the Cold War in the West as well as the East, as both sides rushed to see whose athletes could be pumped up faster. The scope of East Germany’s state managed doping system wasn’t revealed until after the Berlin Wall fell years later, when it was found that more than 10,000 athletes were given drugs, many without their knowledge, some at as young as twelve years of age, leading both to Olympic medals and long term health problems.
In the 1960s, steroids found their way into NFL locker rooms, with trainers putting them right next to the plates of players at mealtime, or leaving them in lockers. According to Steve Courson’s book False Glory, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty teams, which won four Super Bowls in six years,
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Many NFL players from that era have lived with terrible health problems, and some have died well before their time. Most famously, Lyle Alzado passed away in 1992 of brain cancer that he insisted was linked to his prodigious steroid use. Alzado, as well as sympathetic scientists, asserted that the turn of the century would see "graveyards filled with athletes" that juiced. But this didn’t happen. As damaging as they were, steroids haven’t proven to be nearly as dangerous as alcohol,
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This gets to the central issue about steroids. Like any drug or pill,
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But taken under a physician’s oversight, steroids can allow people to heal faster, build muscle mass, and train longer than they would be able to otherwise. Steroids have also been a lifesaver
for people with HIV/AIDS and MS. According to a recent report from HBO’s Real Sports, there is no evidence that steroids are unsafe when taken under a doctor’s supervision.
Given the above facts, it is no surprise that steroids became especially attractive to Major League Baseball players in the 1990s. Baseball is a grueling marathon of a sport that comes with all kinds of nagging injuries,
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The great lie, however, is that major league owners, trainers, and Commissioner Bud Selig were just "shocked" to learn that steroids had found a home in major league clubhouses. The real shock is that the media and Congress have let them get away with this crude fiction. As one player said to me, "It’s crazy that punishment is an individual issue but distribution has always been a team issue."
The juicing of the game began in earnest in 1994 when a players’ strike mutated into an owners’ lockout that led to the cancellation of the World Series. In a century that saw two world wars, a Great Depression, and Reaganomics, this was the first time the World Series had ever been cancelled. The game’s popularity sank to historic lows.
DSHEA and the Den of Idiots
The major league owners called by late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams "A Den of Idiots" consciously decided, "We need dingers. Congress at the bipartisan behest of President Bill Clinton and Utah senator Orrin Hatch: the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).
Despite focus tested buzzwords like "health" and "education," DSHEA was little more than a criminal giveback to the pharmaceutical industry. DSHEA’s purpose was to shift the burden of proof from the health supplement industry to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Previously, a manufacturer had to prove a product’s safety before marketing it. After DSHEA passed, the overloaded,
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Most people think that dietary supplements and herbs are closely regulated to ensure that they are safe, effective, and truthfully advertised. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some aspects of marketing are regulated, the United States Congress has concluded that "informed" consumers need little government protection. This conclusion was embodied in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which severely limits the FDA’s ability to regulate these products.
DSHEA’s passage spawned the almost overnight creation of the $27 billion supplement industr y and turned the locker room of the average team into a GNC store. Because of DSHEA, teams began to import completely legal weight lifting and dietary "aids." Many of these are now banned substances. Androstenedione or andro, a highly potent steroid derivative was legal, available over the counter, and listed as a food supplement. After the 1998 home run race, during which Mark McGwire kept andro in his locker, sales rose 500 percent to $55 million per year. Substances like andro were available in every clubhouse. It started with a few teams, but the pressure to keep up pushed other teams to stock it as well. As former Mets GM Steve Phillips said, "I’m hired to win ball games and if other teams are doing it, I want my players doing it, too." This mentality had deadly consequences. Ephedra, which was completely legal, was linked to the deaths of both Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler and Minnesota Viking offensive lineman Korey Stringer. Now that it has been proven unsafe,
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But few were counting the dead because home runs and the media and fan frenzy that accompanied them were making baseball Madison Avenue hot for the first time since people were doing the Charleston and saying "23 skidoo." Owners milked the new Powerball to the hilt and used cartoons of freakishly muscled players as part of ad campaigns,
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Increased offense and media buzz meant increased money. In 1995, with the sport on life support,
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Balls were flying over the fence at a record, ungodly pace. It was far more pervasive than the wildly promoted Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998, in which both players broke Roger Maris’s record of sixty one home runs in a season. Consider that between 1876 and 1994 the goal of hitting fifty home runs in the course of a single season had been reached eighteen times. From 1995 to 2002, it was done another eighteen times. Slap hitters were hitting twenty homers. Twenty home run guys were up to thirty. As Joe Morgan said, "I would be broadcasting a game and there would be players hitting balls in a way that they had no business hitting them." Morgan was told by his bosses at ESPN not to raise any concerns about this fact.
The owners actually had a multipronged strategy to make Major League Baseball more like beer league softball and it was subtle as a blowtorch. It was made at a very fundamental level. And little by little, step by step,
Low Price, this became the new reality. There has been too much to write it off as coincidence." People call this a conspiracy theory, but baseball has a proud history of conspiracies. For six decades, without ever putting the idea to paper, owners kept out African American players. In the 1980s, they colluded to keep down salaries and deny players the right of free agency, costing players, according to an arbitrator’s ruling, millions of dollars. This is what these guys do. They sit in a room and make unaccountable decisions.
Sources of the Boom
The reasons for the home run boom can be seen in every city, and felt in every urban budget, every underfunded school, every shuttered rec center, and every library that closes early. Since