YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ignoring Steroid Issue Is a National Pastime

October 15, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

Fewer than a dozen of the 10,500 athletes who competed tested positive for banned, performance-enhancing drugs and Sydney's Olympics, magnificent in virtually every other way, were scarred as "the Dirty Games."

The HBO network's "Real Sports" reported last week that of 550 triple-A baseball players tested for steroids during spring training, 12% (66 players) test positive.

One day later, the New York Times reported that one of five minor league players tested randomly for steroids each year by the San Diego Padres tests positive and Andre Dawson tells the newspaper that he believes up to 40% of major leaguers have used the drugs.

The reaction to those revelations has been . . . well, I'll report it as soon as I hear some.

The league championships series continue untainted. Enthusiasm builds for the World Series. No one, except for HBO, the New York Times and I, calls baseball "the Dirty Game."

In our expectations of Olympians and baseball players (or probably most athletes in major professional sports), is there a double standard?

Undoubtedly. We at least have expectations of Olympians.

"It might be naive, but there's a whole different emotional standard for Olympians," says Nova Lanktree of Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network in Chicago. "There's the concept of purity in sport.

"With baseball players, we know they drink beer, smoke cigars, chew tobacco, spit and scratch their crotches. Or at least that's how we view them."

Is this double standard fair to Olympians?

Probably not.

And definitely so.

No one said it was a simple issue.


Infinitely less complex is the issue of whether steroids are performance-enhancing in baseball.

Seventeen years ago, while doing research for a series of drug stories in advance of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, two colleagues and I visited the office of a San Gabriel Valley doctor, Robert Kerr, who openly talked about the steroid programs he administered for athletes--without naming the athletes. His view was that if athletes were determined to use steroids, they should be under a doctor's supervision.

Among the athletes he treated, he said, were baseball players.

Until that time, steroids were primarily associated with strength events such as weightlifting, shotputting and discus throwing and football. But benefits of the drugs in other disciplines, such as sprinting, were emerging.

After one of Kerr's patients went from a before-steroid three home runs one season to an after-steroid 20 the next, the word spread fast in baseball clubhouses.

Gene Orza, an executive with the Major League Baseball Players Assn., told "Real Sports" that it is unclear whether steroids enhance performance in the sport.

But, as Dr. Charles Yesalis, author of "Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise," told the program, such an assertion is "ludicrous."

Gary Sheffield, estimating that six or seven players per major league team use steroids, said that, with the drugs, "You don't have to hit a ball real good and it will go real far."

In other words, juiced players might be a more significant factor in the increase in home runs in recent years than juiced baseballs.


Of course, a more important issue than whether a player increases his power rating is his long-term health.

There is enough evidence that steroids are injurious to women and teenagers. Testimony in the recently concluded trials of East German sports leaders who systematically treated young athletes with the drugs--the sports version of the Nuremberg Trials--should be required reading for anyone considering starting a steroid program.

But the effect of the drugs on men, especially if they are staying within recommended dosages, is inconclusive, although doctors such as Yesalis warn that they can be linked to heart and liver disorders.

Such warnings should be enough for the players' association--which, Orza said, has no greater concern than its members' health, to allow-- demand, even--random testing of its players. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, there is no requirement for major leaguers to be tested for steroids.

Some will contend that grown men should be able to make their own decisions about the health risks they are willing to take. Auto racers do.

The difference is that all auto racers are confronted with the choice before they ever get behind the wheel of a race car. It's part of their business.

Such risks should not be part of the baseball business. Yet, some players believe they are climbing uphill on an increasingly tilting playing field and find themselves facing potentially life and death decisions.

Colorado third baseman Jeff Cirillo, noting that he hit a meager 11 home runs this season at what is supposed to be a power position, told "Real Sports" that he has had to fight off temptations to use steroids.

Even if baseball's drug rules change, players will still be faced with choices because testing, as some Olympians have proved, can be beaten. But at least the players--like Olympians--will know that their steroid use and that of their competitors is not condoned by officials. Nor perhaps will it continue to be winked at by the public.


Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address:

Los Angeles Times Articles