From the Editor

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Steroid issue not about pros

Every year or so, there is a new scandal over steroids, and we have to pretend all over again that we are all surprised that our bigger-than-life heroes are on drugs.

Imagine, that guy shaped like a mountain turned upside down hitting home runs with more regularity that the other players scratch and spit, using a performance supplement? The guy who weighs three hundred pounds and can chase down a 190-pound quarterback, on the juice? The bodybuilder with twitching muscles in places that the rest of us don't even have the places, tweaking the better-life-through-chemistry lifestyle? Who woulda thunk it?

As I read about the latest steroid scandal over BALCO "nutrition" company and Barry Bonds, the writers sound so shocked. Come on - Bonds hit a career high 49 dingers in 2000, then after meeting this nutrition guru, a year-older Bonds produces 73 the next season?

It is a scandal involving high-tech designer steroids and masking agents, human growth hormone and suspected money laundering, drugs with code names like "the cream" and "the clear," and a mystery chemist who concocted a new performance-enhancing drug called THG.

The mess threatens to bring an investigation into other great athletic feats of the past several years, and some of the 2004 Olympians are said to be sweating.

The prospect is seeing our elite athletes exposed one by one, perhaps as witnesses at the trials of chemical dealers.

Frankly, I don't care what Barry Bonds wants to ingest, or whether NFL players with necks like oxen choose to dope themselves up until "the boys" shrink up like raisins. They are adults, and for athletes in the elite Bond's stratosphere, perhaps a $90 million contract might be worth a little medical risk.

What I do care about is that today's kids are going to grow up feeling that you have to take shortcuts to make it big, no matter how much you risk.

The message is that no matter how hard you try, you can't make it on your talent and hard work. You need the supplement.

Whether it is true or not, it is going to look to them that it isn't your mind or heart that makes the difference between regular and superstar - it's how many pharmaceuticals you can swallow.

Steroids are nothing new. I can remember a high school friend going to the doctor in those days, and being given drugs to take him to the next level (this was just before the big steroid scare). Over the course of a summer, he went from a skinny 180 pound football bench-rider to maybe 230 pounds and all-conference. He got recruited to a major college, but I don't think he stuck there long, and I've never heard of him since.

When I first came to Storm Lake, I used to work out in the BVU weight room, where everybody knew that creepy guy who liked to hang around - about five foot tall and five foot wide - flexing and tacking sheets full of mis-spellings on the bulletin board peddling quick size-gain "supplements."

The pressure is on athletes at every level to take performance-enhancers or risk falling behind.

And the pro leagues fall over over themselves posing as vigilant about catching cheaters - they're liars. That's the very last thing they want.

The huger and faster and more outrageous the players, the more money the leagues make. Fans don't want a slick double-play, they want 450-foot crushed home runs.

And we don't really care about the health of the jocks - if they're hurt, shoot them full of cortisone and run them back out there to ruin a knee. We paid good money for a ticket or wasted good time in front of the tube. They owe us.

I've noticed lately that a lot of voices are saying that steroids and other sports-related drugs are so prevalent that we should go ahead and allow them.

These people will tell you that steroids aren't bad - after all, doctors prescribe steroids and other supplements for a variety of medical and cosmetic purposes.

They have a point - if we allowed such drug use in sports, athletes could get them from responsible physicians instead of back-room pushers.

Again, it might be fine for big-buck pro athletes to choose to take that calculated health risk.

But what would that tell the kids? If we say it's fine for a pro to dope up for better sports, how can we say it's wrong for a high school athlete to want the same?

"Players are willing to do whatever it takes to give themselves a chance to be competitive,'' said one NFL football coach. "We've sold them the dream."

Have we really become so enthralled with our games that we are teaching our children to do anything - take any risk for a chance to keep playing at a higher level?

I'm not so naive to think that we are going to get steroids out of sports with some law or policy. New forms of "juice" and ways to beat the tests emerge much faster than does our week will to expose our heroes as druggies.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush raised the issue rather unexpectedly. "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,'' the president said.

Now I don't make a point of agreeing with the man - and I could point out that as a former major league team owner, I bet he didn't hire players on character rather than performance.

But if you don't think performance-enhancing drugs are an issue, pay closer attention to your TV commercials for an hour or so - one after another, prescription drugs to fix your mood, your skin, your hair, you level of business success, and of course, enlarge, enlarge, enlarge that penis. No kidding, my cat has received mass mail from Viagra addressed to it ' "Tori Larsen."

I'd be thrilled if my kids were successful in sports, but if they need drugs to do it, I'd rather they watched from the stands. Sad to say, I doubt that every parent longing to live out their own fantasies through their children would agree with that.

I don't give a damn about Barry Bonds. But when it comes to our children, I'm afraid we are going to wish we had a little of that sports innocence back before we're through.