Steroid-Gate Still Scars The Sport

steroidgateRemember “the Steroid era”? Any player with a neck size larger than Rosie O’Donnell’s is suspected of being a pincushion. The witch-hunts have begun, with burly Barry Bonds habitually being forced to deny he’s a habitual steroid user. And Mike Piazza? He’s denying everything.

Enter the Senate. Considering the glacial pace of federal legislative activity, perhaps politicians view anything that enhances performance with alarm and distrust. Still, the Senate hearing was a classic exercise in overkill, even if the nation wasn’t in the midst of a war on terror, a lingering economic slowdown and serious accounting scandals rotting our 401(k)s. Arranged by Byron Dorgan (Democrat, North Dakota), chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism, the hearing resulted in predictable displays of finger wagging, head shaking and big juicy red herrings. Our tax dollars at work.

Although mandatory drug testing of players was the central issue, Robert Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations, said that what Congress really needs to do is regulate legal supplements such as androstenedione before they land in the hands of young people. This is called changing the subject. Hopefully, Manfred’s attempt to divert attention from illegal anabolic steroids to perfectly safe over-the-counter supplements won’t gain traction.

If the grand old game is indeed on the ‘roid to perdition, limiting the availability of legal OTC sports supplements will do nothing but deprive consumers of helpful options in their pursuit of athletic and fitness excellence. If the Senate has hearings on any health-related subject, it should be the fattening of America. According to a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, children are getting fatter earlier, setting themselves up for a lifetime of health problems. Experts estimate that as many as 300,000 people die each year due to obesity-related causes, making it second only to smoking as the leading cause of preventable disease and death in this country. There’s your scandal.

Still, the main health topic in the august chambers of the Senate is baseball and steroids, with dietary supplements becoming collateral damage in what is in essence a labor-management debate. Simply consider the timing of the Sports Illustrated article and the airing of the steroid issue. FLEX staffer Jim Rosenthal, who has co-written books with Major League greats Nolan Ryan and Tony Gwynn, notes that a baseball strike looms, with owners and players digging in for a fateful battle. “The SI article is more of a critique of the MLB players union’s unwillingness to institute drug testing than anything else,” says Rosenthal. “The timing of the article — set against the backdrop of an imminent players strike in August — makes this quite clear.”

Even Senator Dorgan admitted that his hearings were a way to apply pressure to Major League Baseball to introduce drug testing. Of course, drug testing, as it exists now, is something only a politician could love. It’s a smokescreen — nothing but an intelligence test to see which athletes (or their suppliers/doctors) are so uninformed and unprepared as to get caught by a test. Drug tests are what owners and sports commissioners institute to cover the PR angle.

Perhaps the worst result of the SI piece is that it gives every yahoo with a public forum a license to become a self-proclaimed expert on steroids and supplements. Quite silly was the performance of national scold Bill O’Reilly on the perplexingly named Best Damn Sports Show Period. O’Reilly, one of those commentators who is never in doubt but frequently in error, began a fact-challenged rant, spewing several outrageous and erroneous claims, among them that Mark McGwire was severely harmed from using creatine and other supplements — a ludicrous assertion that has absolutely no scientific basis.

Gladly, scientific research does matter to the U.S. government, which announced on June 14 that no action would be taken on regulating ephedrine until more studies were performed. In a statement accompanying the announcement, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said: “By increasing our breadth of knowledge about these supplements, we can give consumers the information they need to make informed decisions about these products.” Now that’s a home run.

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