Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How Widespread is the Use of Performance Enhancing Drugs Among Elite Athletes?

MLB slugger Barry Bonds and the riders in the Tour de France have gotten a lot of media attention this year regarding their alleged use of performance enhancing drugs but there is every reason to believe that this scourge cuts a wide swath throughout the world of sports. Rodney Harrison, a two-time Pro Bowl safety who is the only player in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career, just admitted to using human growth hormone (HGH) and has been suspended for four games by the NFL. HGH is not detectable by current drug testing regimens but Harrison, Wade Wilson and Richard Ryzde are three NFL figures whose use and/or distribution of HGH was discovered by an investigation conducted by the Albany (New York) District Attorney's office; Ryzde, a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been fired and Wilson--who during the time frame covered by the investigation (2004-06) worked for the Chicago Bears and is now the Dallas Cowboys' quarterbacks coach--has been suspended by the NFL for five games and fined $100,000. Also, former number one overall pick Tim Couch reportedly extensively used steroids and HGH as he attempted to rehabilitate from surgery and resume his NFL career. Couch claims that he never used steroids and only used HGH for one week under a doctor's care but he faces a possible NFL suspension if he ever is signed by an NFL team.

For some reason, there does not seem to be the same public outrage about the use of performance enhancing drugs in the NFL that there is about PED use in baseball, cycling, track and field and other sports. Three members of the Carolina Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl team--punter Todd Sauerbrun, center Jeff Mitchell and offensive lineman Todd Steussie--used steroids that season but this illegal conduct simply never seemed to register in the public consciousness. One must assume that for every Harrison, Couch and Wilson who have been caught that there are plenty of others who have done the same things but not been detected. The reason why athletes are using these drugs is obvious: they work and athletes feel compelled to level the playing field when they see (or suspect) that their teammates and fellow competitors are cheating. I don't know when all of the "other shoes" will finish dropping but when everything is out in the open I think that we are going to discover that the past 15-20 years have not just been a "steroids era" in baseball but rather that almost every sport has been afflicted. If you doubt that, just do a simple eyeball test, either by looking at athletes' physiques or by looking at their weights, body fat percentages, bench press numbers and 40 yard dash times. I'm old enough to remember when Anthony Munoz was considered to be a freak of nature because he weighed in the vicinity of 290 pounds but had incredible nimbleness and quickness. Nowadays, Munoz would be on the small side for an offensive lineman. Don't get me wrong--I think that Munoz was indeed a freak of nature in the good sense, someone who was blessed with natural size and athletic ability. My point is how did it happen in one generation that football players got so much bigger, stronger and faster? I don't believe that this is natural or normal. Some people cite improved diets and more advanced fitness regimens but that makes it sound like the United States was some kind of Third World country circa 1979; were nutrition and conditioning that primitive back then? I don't think so.

Remember William "Refrigerator" Perry? He'd just be a small kitchen appliance next to today's NFL linemen. Are we really supposed to believe that these guys would have only weighed 260-270 pounds 30 years ago because athletes were somehow malnourished back then? Fred Dryer played defensive lineman in the NFL at 220 pounds before becoming an actor and playing the title role in the TV series "Hunter." Defensive backs weigh that much now. If the "measurables" don't convince you that PED use has become rampant, just tune to ESPN Classic and watch some NBA, NFL or MLB games from 25 or 30 years ago; those athletes look like they are from a different species than the gladiators who currently take the courts, football fields and baseball diamonds. Baseball players Dave Parker (6-5, 230) and Dave Winfield (6-6, 220) were huge back in the day but their size would hardly draw any special attention today. I'm not saying that everybody is doing it but it would be naive to think that the only cheaters are the few players who have been dumb enough or unlucky enough to be caught red-handed.

The multi-million dollar question now is how to ever put this genie back in the bottle. It may not be long before athletes--and regular citizens--can alter their basic genetic makeup to improve their performance, so where--and how--will society and its sports leagues draw the line? Will we simply give up and say that anything goes? It will be interesting to see how many of today's athletes suffer long term health consequences from the substances that they have ingested. Lyle Alzado attributed the brain cancer that ultimately killed him to steroid abuse, although that link has never been scientifically proven. If many of today's stars pay a physical price for their cheating will that dissuade future athletes from going down this path? Sadly, the answer is probably no, because young athletes believe that they are invincible and do not think about the long term consequences of their actions.


vednam said...

This is a very thought-provoking article. I have to admit that I am also suspicious of how huge NFL linemen have become. I also do not believe that improved dieting, fitness regimens, and healthcare can account for such vast differences that we observe in certain areas of sports.

I certainly have suspicions about widespread PEDs in MLB and NFL. But what about the NBA? To me, it doesn't seem that PED use has any substantial presence in the NBA. It is very true that players are bigger overall now than they were 20-30 years ago. However, I think that's largely due to fact that it has become common for big guys (who would have been pigeon-holed as PF/C's in the past) to be manning all positions on the floor. I also think that, at least in the NBA, weight-training CAN account for much of the difference. Just look at how much bigger Michael Jordan was in his Wizard days than he was his first few years with the Bulls, or look at how much bigger Wilt Chamberlain was on the Lakers (after his knee injury, when he started lifting lots of weights) than he was on the Warriors. I've read that weight-lifting was not common for NBA players in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It makes sense when you look at the styles of play during those years. Muscle is much more important for today's slow-it-down approach than it would have been for an uptempo, fast-breaking game. That's why, on ESPN classic, we see so many guys like George Gervin or Jamaal Wilkes who look like sticks compared to today's players.

David Friedman said...

I have no specific information about any NBA players using PEDs and I agree that elite athletes can transform their physiques to some extent simply through hard work in the weight room--but part of what PEDs do is enable athletes to recuperate faster from workouts, so the fact that NBA players are definitely lifting weights more than they did 30 years ago begs the question of whether or not the NBA is perhaps the only collection of elite athletes who are not using PEDs. Think about it: the NFL, MLB, track and field, boxing, cycling, various other Olympic sports all seem to have plenty of PED users among their elite performers. Great athletes in different sports often hang out together and sometimes have the same agents and trainers. Is it reasonable to believe that the subject of PEDs never comes up? Jose Canseco brags that he brought MLB into the steroids era by teaching various players the proper way to use steroids effectively. Again, I have no evidence--which is why I did not list any NBA names--but I am sad to say that I find it hard to believe that NBA basketball would be the one sport that has not been touched by this issue.

Again, it needs to be emphasized that the fact that an athlete works hard in the weight room and has a good diet does not prove that he is not using steroids; in order for steroids to have maximum effect, the user must work out a lot and eat right. Barry Bonds still had to do a ton of work to build himself up, but steroids enable users to recover quicker and hence shoulder a bigger work load (literally).