Steroids and condemnation

DMZ · December 3, 2004 at 10:34 am · Filed Under Mariners 

This took me almost a day to write, so please, forgive me if it’s a little dense and long.

There are a couple of distinct and separate issues with the BALCO testimony and Barry Bonds in particular, and it’s important before I go on to make these clear.

What exactly came out of this last leak, and what does it change?
Is the use of performance-enhancing drugs bad, in general or for specific types of drugs?
Do steroids help players?
Did Barry Bonds use steroids, and if so, knowingly or unknowingly?
Am I a Bonds partisan who is only defending him for nefarious reasons?

To the last one, I long ago admitted that I thought it was only matter of time before it came out. My approach, in the steroid controversies as in all baseball things, is that I try to see where reason takes me, and if it doesn’t get me all the way there, when I write about it I try to be good about what’s fact and what’s my interpretation.

For steroid use, this has meant that I weighed the evidence and found it lacking. The appearance-change argument is the weakest of all arguments, but none of them met the standard I’d require to come out and say that a particular player used steroids. To be entirely clear — I think there are players on these drugs. I think I could make a list of guys I was pretty sure about, and if we could conclusively prove it one way or another, that list would be proven out.

But I don’t want to write about rumors and speculation like that. I want to be a good analyst, a decent humorist, not a dirt-monger, and I think there’s a huge difference between trafficing in M’s front-office gossip and writing something that potentially helps taint a player’s career.

All the rest of these are far more complicated than coverage so far has made them.

To dismiss another one quickly: “Do steroids help players?” I’m not convinced that they do. We don’t have data on this. They clearly can make players stronger, but whether the overall effects translate into better performance, we don’t know, and we won’t ever know, because it would require a long-term study with many players who do and don’t use, and we’ll never get that.

So to the issue of morals. “Is the use of performance-enhancing drugs bad, in general or for specific types of drugs?”

I oppose any athlete using a drug that produces a short-term gain for a long-term cost in health. Legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter to me. I agree entirely with those
who argue that if you’re a normal, healthy athlete, you shouldn’t have to make a choice between keeping up with another player using harmful drugs and behing healthy enough to play catch with their kids in ten years.

This is part of why I have such trouble watching football: these 300+ pound lineman are offering themselves up to diabetes and all kinds of joint problems for the rest of their lives for a four, five year career in the trenches.

But the line between what’s going on is entirely unclear. Elite athletes all use supplements of one kind or another. It could be super-concentrated meals-in-a-shake recovery drinks, or vitamain and mineral supplements. Many use legal supplements that are natural… sort of. Like creatine, which may help build twitch muscle bulk. You could get that kind of creatine in your system naturally. You would have to drink fish smoothies all day, but it could be done. And yet no one really knows what the long-term effects of creatine use are — and even the performance studies are inconsistent about the benefits. People use it like crazy. But it seems like it should be safe (except for the flatulence and need for super-hydration… no, really).

Now, steroids like the one Jason Giambi supposedly testified taking, that are illegal for healthy people and can have all kinds of side effects: clearly wrong.

But what about new, unproven, legal drugs, like THG was? Or the now-banned set of steroid precursors like andro that Mark McGwire used? These are almost like creatine: they directly or indirectly change the body in a way that would be difficult to practically do without them.

If an athlete is taking a legal but unproven drug, is that bad, or just aggressively searching for an advantage?

This is an entirely practical question. I’ve written before that designer steroids are decades ahead of testing, and the THG scandal’s proven that. Conte comes out and says it in his interview with ESPN. If Bonds and Sheffield and Giambi are all tossed out of baseball tomorrow, there will be many, many other athletes in many sports using THG-like drugs and testing negative for banned performance enhancing drugs.

And we’re never going to know if these are safe. Much of what goes on with players who use these drugs is vodoo without the oral history of what’s effective. Each athlete’s relying on someone to come up with schedules, etc, based on their best guesses for effectiveness and safety, which in turn is based on their ability to do research on (for instance) trials of similar products on sick people. The people working on this stuff are really smart, but without wide clinical trials… there’s a degree of uncertainty those who use choose to live with.

So now go back to our mythical innocent player, using legal, healthy supplements and working out all the time. He knows the guy competing with him is using something crazy, a new testosterone enhancer called NMM, say. No one knows if it’s safe, or how effective it is, though he’s asked his trainer, who asked around and reported that the word is it’s safe, undetectable, and great for building muscle mass. It’s legal because no one’s heard of it.

What’s this guy do?

I don’t have an easy answer. I don’t want him to face that question, but in a sense, it’s the same question he faces over creatine, or any other supplement, except that there are far more unknowns and potential harm with NMM.

So do you legislate what supplements can be taken, limiting that set to a small number of drugs that have gone through wide clinical trials? Limit trainers to a set of qualified, certified people who understand that list and its application thoroughly?

And then if NMM’s undetectable, aren’t we back where we started?

There’s no easy answer. I applauded MLB and MLBPA when they ignored the Canseco-incited hysteria to come up with a reasoned, measured approach that tried to determine the extent of abuse (though that test was, I understand, pretty laughable) and included work on trying to educate players coming up on the risks involved. Because you’re not going to catch the NMMs, enforcement of a banned substance list can only be part of any solution.

I know, it sucks. I wish I had a brilliant solution in here, too. I don’t. No one does.

This leaves us with two questions:
Did Barry Bonds use steroids, and if so, knowingly or unknowingly?
What exactly came out of this last leak, and what does it change?

Many people have looked at this last leak and said Bonds admitted using steroids. But he doesn’t. He says he trusted his friend, and took a bunch of stuff for other problems. He says he doesn’t believe his friend would have given him steroids.

The prosecution questions him at length about how Anderson had drug schedules, and how the items Bonds describes using (which Bonds claims he thought was flaxseed oil, for instance) are matches for these substances, like “the cream”.

Bonds’ line here is pretty much that he took stuff, didn’t know what it was, certainly didn’t know it was steroids, and doesn’t think it was anyway.

I’ve followed Bonds’ career most of my life, appreciating both his accomplishments — regardless of what people argue about his late-career surge, Barry’s been an elite player for his whole career — and acknowledging that he has problems dealing with the press, comes off as arrogant (and why not, I said, he’s Barry Bonds).

The same qualities that led me to defend him: knowing how fanatical about his workouts he was, how serious he got about nutrition late in his career, all the things he did that allowed him to age so well and explained his performance, these things all now make the case that he used the worst BALCO had to offer, and that he’s lying about it now.

I can’t believe that Bonds, this fanatical trainer, eater, control-freak about his work, would use random supplements handed to him by anyone without a good explanation. Or that he would continue to work with this guy knowing he was involved in some really strange stuff. Though Barry’s got little use for image, he must have understood the risks that ran. Even as I believe in the world of the elite athlete it must be hard to find trainers who don’t have some connection, it seems strange to me that Bonds wouldn’t actively seek to keep his reputation cleaner.

It’s possible, too, that Bonds knew he’d be given something without knowing how, and so he’d be supplied with stuff to take, and with full knowledge that there was something in one of them, took the vitamin supplement, applied the oil, drank the cola… and maintained deniability that he didn’t know that any of those items specifically contained the magic pixie dust.

Which then brings up a new question: assume Bonds was using THG. At the time, it was legal. What if he was using something illegal, too, like HGH? Does the difference matter? What does this mean for him, and the game?

It’s bad. You can agree with me that the issues around supplements are complicated and also see that this is bad for baseball. I don’t understand why people see steroid use by a player as worse than gambling on games, but they do. I don’t understand why there’s a desire to tear down his marks (would you restore them in the future when strength-building drugs are legal, safe, and widely used?) and yet I know there are people who want to see that happen.

More than anything, I feel let down. I’ve always known these truths about the choices elite athletes make, and there’s something Conte touches on in his interview that rings particularly true: for someone who has always dreamed of competing in the Olympics, for instance, many get to a point in their career where on top of everything they’ve ever done, they need to inject something strange and unknown, or their ascension will stop. Punishment is meaningless in that choice: it’s either become the best, or fail, and failure by way of drug testing may be more shameful than failure by way of competition, but it is still not the goal they strived for.

It makes me sad that athletes have to make that choice. But like everyone else, I don’t have a good solution, or soothing words to salve the conscience. Bonds and Giambi and the rest may fall, but the problem would remain, and as long as it’s there, I will get no satisfaction from the temporary victories in prosecuting a few who got caught.


2 Responses to “Steroids and condemnation”

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