The Why Files The Why Files --

The Steroid Story

POSTED 16 DEC 2004

Is a full-court press on steroids a mistake?
If you've been reading the coverage of Big Barry Bonds, you've heard the call: Baseball must get serious about drug testing. Drugs harm athletes, pollute sports, and confer an unfair advantage.

 Older gentleman wearing tie sweetly smiles at camera.Even Pres. Bush climbed onto the bandwagon, in his 2004 State of the Union speech: "Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example. The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message -- that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character."

Medical ethicist Norman Fost loves sports, but says the steroid discussion is clouded by hypocrisy. © UW-Madison University Communications

But Norman Fost, a University of Wisconsin-Madison pediatrician, ethicist, and self-described sports junkie, says the concern about steroid use -- by adults -- is rank hypocrisy. These are some of his arguments:

1: Do steroids promote aggression? The question is apt after the recent suspension of the fighting four Detroit Pistons and the furious five Indiana Pacers. We've already looked at evidence for aggression, but even if steroids do increase physical assaults, Fost asks whether we should focus on the drug -- or on the behavior. "Physical assault, sexual assault, and criminal acts are all very common among athletes," he says. "But if people are worried about physical or sexual assault by athletes on steroids, they should be equally worried about them by athletes who are not on steroids. ...If the NFL and the NBA are saying they are concerned about the image of sport, or the misfortune of people who get attacked, there should be a lifetime ban on someone who attacks."

2: Do steroids confer an "unfair advantage"? Maybe you've nodded to this one, but to Fost, it represents "stunning hypocrisy.... In baseball, Bud Selig tells us he is concerned about unfair competition, but he presides over a league where the Yankees pay $180-million a year, in salary, and rising, and the Brewers pay $30-million, there is not a chance in hell they will succeed in a league where the average salary is three, four or five times as much. So when he tells me he is concerned about unfair competition, I am not convinced."

3: Do steroids harm the athlete? This claim Fost, says, is, "just wildly exaggerated." The real damage from steroids, he says, "is mostly cosmetic, and reversible, acne and hair loss, voice and hair changes in women. Infertility in men and women is most of the time reversible." Other problems, including cancer, heart disease and stroke, have never been conclusively linked to steroids, he asserts. Even the poster boy of steroid abuse, pro football player Lyle Alzedo, who died of brain cancer in 1991, proves nothing about heavy steroid use. "There is not a single shred of evidence, by anybody, that there is any connection between brain cancer and steroids," Fost asserts, "and yet 10 years later, he's cited as example of what can happen." While many pro athletes, including football players, suffer disability from their jobs, steroids don't necessarily add to the problem.

4: Do steroid-addled athletes make poor role models? Perhaps, but Fost wonders if the sports business is so worried about kids emulating athletes, why it promotes chewing tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol, he says, is "a drug that kills tens of thousands of people, users and innocent victims in drunk driving, but it's sold and advertised at the ballpark, people are getting drunk at ballparks. Why aren't professional sports worried about that? A professional athlete is a thousand times more likely to die of alcohol poisoning than steroid poisoning."

All in all, Fost says the wave of hysteria about sports doping recalls the attitude of classic anti-marijuana film, "Reefer Madness."

The costs of control
However, none of these arguments is meant to justify doping among adolescent athletes. As Fost acknowledges, and as rodent research indicates, developing minds and bodies may be particularly prone to problems from steroids.

Finally, there's another side to the equation. Banning steroids carries a cost of its own. Tracy Olrich of Central Michigan University, for example, says that if doctors could prescribe steroids, users could get pure meds. Olrich, a former body builder who says he never used steroids, says before federal law was tightened in 1990, body-builders "used to have a trusted black market source; they pretty well knew it was legitimate stuff, but after 1990 it was much more difficult to get pure drugs, they were almost having to work through a criminal element to get the steroids. It put the athlete at more risk."

Now, he says, steroids are classified along with cocaine, and "that's a serious misclassification."

Actually, it's right on, says Melloni, who says anabolic steroids cause some of the same brain changes as cocaine. "They depress serotonin, increase vasopressin and increase GABA," he says. Each of these changes appear in adolescent hamsters who are given testosterone, and each is linked to aggression in hamsters. Anabolic steroids "absolutely" should be restricted like cocaine and heroin.

Football players rush to capture the ball.We don't know much about the training regime of this team, but one way to get bigger, stronger, faster is to shoot steroids.

Melloni, who studies steroids in hamster brains, says pro sports need to get real. "Major League Baseball, and football, hockey, all need to develop a strict, rigorous drug testing program that is comprehensive." So far, he says, that hasn't happened. "When I heard baseball's response [to the new steroid allegations], it made me nauseous, it sent the wrong signal ... to thousands of kids that want to play baseball. The message was: If you uses these substances, we'll hush it up."

"These are nasty chemicals that produce changes in the body and brain that are dangerous," Melloni says.

Life in the gym
While many researchers have looked at steroids from the outside, Olrich sees them from the perspective of a former body-builder. Many boys and young men, he says, use steroids to create an ideal body. "It has to do with the male body image, they want to be big, be noticed, and steroids are very effective at doing that."

No matter why the man started using steroids, "Once they start using, the social phenomenon, 'I want to be big, strong, be noticed walking down the street' is very powerful... We want to be that cartoonish mesomorphic image."

Olrich sees steroids as a "transitional drug... Males use anabolic steroids while trying to establish an identity of who they are." In interviews with body builders, Olrich hears the drugs described as "the most addictive thing I ever used."

Still, users had little difficulty stopping, Olrich found. Former users told him, "'I don't still use, I'm no longer in athletics, I have a job, I'm a dad.' There is a time they want to be known as big and strong, but then they graduate, get a job. Different things become important, and steroid use drops off."

Olrich sees steroids as easier to quit than, say, another standby drug of the baseball industry: tobacco. "What I think this really shows is the power of the subculture we find ourselves in. We are addicted more to the sociological factors than to the actual physical factors. Tobacco, look how much difficulty people have quitting, they battle it for a lifetime. With steroids, they say, 'I'm done, I'm no longer involved in a gym.' How could it be that addictive if you just walk away?"

Crank it up in our steroid-assisted bibliography.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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