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… Knowledge is power

There’s a new addition to my Steroids & Baseball section, an outstanding article by Steven Kotler, which was brought to my attention by reader Allan Wall. Sympathy for the Devil details the history of steroid discovery, use and subsequent criminalization, and along the way, debunks the hypocrisy and distortion found at every turn in today’s culture of sanctimony. Here’s a taste:

…. If you want to know anything about steroids, Mauro Di Pasquale is a pretty good place to start. He’s a two-time world-champion power-lifter, eight-time Canadian champ, two-time Pan-American and two-time North American champion. Along the way, Di Pasquale also went to medical school and became one of our foremost authorities on performance-enhancing drugs. He has since written eight books on the topic, worked as a columnist for half a dozen fitness magazines and as editor in chief for the international quarterly newsletter Drugs in Sports and the bimonthly Anabolic Research Review (both are no longer published). In the early ’90s, when World Wrestling Federation founder Vince McMahon decided it was time to get his empire off the juice, Di Pasquale was the one who got the job. He later became the medical director to the World Bodybuilding Federation and the acting medical review officer for NASCAR, helping both sports develop their stringent drug-testing policies.

I reached him at his home in Toronto after a frustrating morning spent trying to find a clear-cut definition of steroids. “You won’t find one,” said Di Pasquale. “When people use the word, they are usually talking about one of two things. Doctors use it to mean corticosteroids, which are catabolic hormones that break tissue down. Corticosteroids are the body’s natural anti-inflammatories, produced as part of our normal reaction to stress. When the general public talks about steroids, they sometimes mean our actual sex hormones, but mostly they mean testosterone or substances designed to mimic testosterone.”

…. “As used by most people, including athletes, the adverse effects of anabolic steroids appear to be minimal,” says Di Pasquale. “Steroids do not cause cancer. They don’t cause kidney failure. There have been thousands of steroid studies and about a hundred of those point out bad side effects. But if you look at those studies carefully, there’s no one-to-one correlation, and a one-to-one correlation is the hallmark of good science. Do anabolics produce ’roid rage? They produce an incredible amount of energy, but you need to think about the kind of people taking steroids. If really competitive and aggressive people start taking drugs that give them more energy, then common sense says that sooner or later you’re going to have some problems, but are steroids the problem or the fact that this person didn’t know how to control their anger long before the steroids came along?”

…. The general feeling is that steroids threaten all of these (sporting) enterprises because steroids threaten the level playing field that many people think is the very foundation of sport. In other words, juicing is considered cheating.

That steroids threatened the level playing field became readily apparent in the 1960s, when androgynous Eastern Bloc female athletes started doing a little too well at the Olympics. By 1975, steroids were added to the Olympics’ list of banned substances. College and professional football followed, with other sports eventually following suit. But it was already too late. The word had gotten out: Steroids built muscle, shortened muscle recovery times, helped speed the healing of injuries and made you feel good along the way. And the word was bad for business.

It wasn’t just that using steroids was cheating — other factors came into play. “There’s a whole subset of the industry that’s very devoted to the record books,” says Rodney Fort, Washington State University professor of economics and author of Pay Dirt: The Business of Professional Team Sports. “These are everyone from the people who make baseball cards to the journalists who cover baseball. They believe you can’t argue about who’s the best batter ever if some of the best batters were on steroids. They’re a subset, but they’re an impactful and vocal subset, and when it came to steroids, they were almost unanimously against.”

…. This entire fracas meant that something had to be done, though what was actually done seems asinine until you remember the history of hallucinogens and exactly what became of Nixon’s war on drugs. “The organized-sports establishment decided they would solve the whole problem by educating the athletes,” wrote Rick Collins, one of our foremost authorities on performance-enhancing drugs and the law, in his book Legal Muscle: Anabolics in America. “They would present the facts to discourage competitive athletes from using steroids. The establishment devised a strategy: to convince competitive athletes that anabolic steroids don’t build muscle. But they needed a credible source through which to sell the message. It was decided that the American College of Sports Medicine would be the entity to spread the news, a bit like the ‘Ministry of Truth’ had the job of spreading false propaganda in George Orwell’s classic book about a totalitarian future, 1984.”

This wasn’t yet 1984, this was 1977, and the College of Sports Medicine took to issuing proclamations: “Steroids had no effect on lean muscle mass; the effects athletes were seeing were water retention; the effects athletes were seeing were the placebo effect.” These claims were propped up by what many consider to have been flawed studies. Nonetheless, they held sway until the real 1984, when there was so much anecdotal evidence to the contrary that the college finally had to admit that, yes, those 300-pound beasts playing left tackle could only have gotten to be 300-pound beasts with the help of anabolic steroids.

So they came up with a different approach — tell the athletes that steroids are bad for them. Make them sound horrible. As these things can go, they made them sound horrible enough that the media picked up the story (and ran with it and are running with it still). Then another fact came to light — high school kids were starting to use steroids. Saving our children fills war chests, and Congress couldn’t resist. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which made trafficking in steroids illegal, and a variety of subcommittees were formed to hear testimony about whether or not steroids should become a controlled substance. Among those who testified was Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Penn State and the world’s leading steroid authority at the time. “Steroids do have a medical use,” Yesalis testified. “From an epidemiologic point of view of the health dangers, I am much more concerned about heroin; I am much more concerned about cocaine; I am much more concerned about cigarettes than anabolic steroids.”

The American Medical Association, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration — the four regulatory agencies that are supposed to have control of the drug-scheduling process — all testified against turning steroids into a controlled substance. It didn’t matter.

I don’t want to cut and paste the whole article, but there’s a lot of good stuff right there. I’ve quoted Dr. Yesalis many times, and he seems to be uncomfortable with what the government wants him to say about steroids. That quote is a couple of decades old. It’s not what he’s saying now.

Whenever we hear Lupica telling us about how steroids are bad because they’re illegal, it helps to remember that he has a vested interest in keeping steroids out of baseball. Remember that (for almost 50 years), our misguided politicians have fueled the entire industry by pushing it underground; which, in turn, keeps it available to children in ways that it wouldn’t be were it still a matter of choice between you and your doctor. How would many of my critics justify the shabby treatment of Bonds if steroids weren’t made a controlled substance, against the advice of the four major organizations in charge of deciding which drugs should and shouldn’t be?

Read the article. It’s headlining in my Steroids in Baseball section.


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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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