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The Elephant in the Room

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Nary an asterisk exists in the preponderance of athletic record books for the utilization of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Like speeding on the interstate: one is ticketed solely because he or she was caught in the act. In actuality, time has demonstrated that most often, athletes (especially within the diaspora) have consistently excelled without the adjunct of these pharmaceuticals. As one who has been in the company—clinically and personally—of countless high school, collegiate, and professional competitors, I can say unequivocally, that these drugs are offered up as casually as a non-alcoholic beverage. Early education regarding these substances is indispensable for anyone participating in the domain of sport. 

9.79 SECONDS 

Ben Johnson had once been exalted as one of the greatest Canadian sprinters ever to blaze the track. Johnson won a stacked 100-meter final, seizing the coveted Olympic gold medal in a then-record 9.79 seconds. Yet, when he tested positive for the banned drug Stanozolol (Winstrol) in the 1988 Summer Games, that all came to a screeching halt. 

Cheater. Liar. Fraud. Disgrace. Seoul, South Korea had a buzz in the air that was almost palpable. The next morning’s international headline and narrative—particularly north of our U.S. border—metamorphosed into “JAMAICAN Loses Gold Medal.” 

Was Ben wrong? Yes. Did he utilize the drug to enhance his performance (and assure victory over rival Carl Lewis)? Yes. Were Canadian physicians and Olympic Track and Field officials aware of his (and other competitors) drug use prior to the event? Certainly. 

Ben was cited for “ridin’ dirty” only because he deviated from the standard—Canadian doctor recommended—drug protocols. Had he adhered to the medical and scientific “game plan”, the gold, and all of the subsequent residuals would have been his to enjoy. DON’T get it twisted. United States Olympic Team 

physicians, along with those in other prominent nations, have not displayed any degree of “exceptionalism” either. An analysis performed by a United States Olympic Committee physician (now deceased) on blood and urine samples from the 1984, 1988, and 1992 games was telling. If the testing had been legitimate, many of our own track and field stalwarts would have been disqualified. 

The aim of most countries is to triumph at any cost. 

UP CLOSE 

As an undergraduate and an avid weightlifter, the most enjoyable collegiate job I held was managing the University of Maryland Fitness Center. A major perk for being there was that I was provided a set of keys to not only open/close the facility, but to work out anytime after hours. There were about forty students on staff. A young lady who enrolled as a freshman during my junior year, worked with us and dated a football player. The two of them were high school sweethearts. The gentleman (name withheld) was a defensive end best described as a “tweener”: not fast enough to play outside linebacker, lacking the bulk to move to the interior line. He was tall and rangy (6’6” 235 lbs.), resembling a power forward in basketball at first glance. 

Nevertheless, four years later, he stood out enough to be summoned to the NFL camp of a prominent team in the AFC. Upon his arrival, he performed spectacularly. However, this particular franchise had a few Pro Bowlers on its “front seven”, and was not clamoring for assistance in the form of another pass rusher. Hence, this talent—too good to simply cut—was offered a spot on the practice squad. Not bad for a free agent. 

As with any competitor, his goal was to not only become a titanic contributor on the 53-man roster, but also a starter. When an opening evolved on the interior defensive line, an assistant coach had an idea: take a year and bulk up. The team put him on a “training program” which transformed his anatomy, physicality, and strength—pointedly. Why didn’t he refuse and walk away? The alternative was to play in the Canadian Football League (CFL), with the potential to make $30,000 versus $3 million annually. 

Armed with pharmacological abetment, he went from 235 to 280 pounds in about seven months and eventually became an NFL All-Pro. Unfortunately, as is often the case with certain performance enhancers, injuries (to tendons and ligaments) developed, accumulated, and ultimately abbreviated his career. 

Often, the sworn enemy of good is better. 

SAN DIEGO SUPERCHARGERS 

If one finds the aforementioned story too far-fetched, think again. Athletic teams—college and professional—have handed out certain anabolic steroids like M&M’s for decades. While many individual players have admitted to utilizing them for recovery purposes, and improved execution, some teams have conducted sanctioned “mandatory” strength programs. 

In 1963, San Diego Chargers Head Coach Sid Gilman arrived at training camp with a cohort named Alvin Roy. He was the genius of their new weight program. Gilman prophetically stated, “This man is what every team will eventually have: a ‘strength coach,'” said Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Mix. [1] 

Next, Roy himself addressed the players. “I still remember his speech, almost verbatim,” Mix says. “He said, ‘Because you’re going to be lifting weights in addition to working out twice a day, you’re going to need more protein.’ And he said, ‘When I was a trainer for the U.S. team in the Olympics, I learned a secret from those [Russians] Rooskies.’ And he held up a bottle of pink pills, and he said, ‘This stuff is called Dianabol and it’s going to help assimilate protein and you’ll be taking it every day.’ And, sure enough, it showed up on our training tables in cereal bowls.” Dianabol was the brand name for the anabolic steroid methandrostenolone, an artificial form of testosterone designed to promote healing and strength in patients. At the time, it was legal. It wasn’t banned by any athletic organization and—as the players discovered—it worked, and quite well. [1] 

That season, the San Diego Chargers would go on to win the AFL (American Football League) Championship, trouncing the Boston Patriots by a score of 51-10. But were the drugs necessary? 

Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski starred for sixteen seasons, winning four Super Bowls, and playing in two Pro Bowls. He was talented. However, as an admitted steroid abuser his echelon of aggression—on and off the gridiron—was often at “level 10”. His rationale for utilizing PED’s was disclosed unceremoniously by a former Boston College teammate. According to his account, Romanowski stated, “We [white guys] gotta take steroids to keep up with the n*****s.” 

BO KNOWS THE LAW 

Bo Jackson demonstrated athletic prowess that was off the charts, from middle school to every ensuing level, in football, basketball, baseball and track. After a stellar collegiate career at Auburn (culminating with the 1985 Heisman Trophy), he went on to do extraordinary—if not superhuman—things in professional baseball and football. His feats, and his physique, were so impressive, that whispers and rumors of steroids would always be heard. There was no concrete evidence, ever, of Bo utilizing “juice” or “gear”. Nevertheless, when Jackson’s football career ended abruptly, due to avascular necrosis of the hip (which can be a complication of steroid abuse), those whispers became clamorous. Bo didn’t need steroids to keep up with anybody. He was that far ahead of the bell curve. Yet, years later, while still playing baseball, a group of journalists decided to report otherwise. 

According to an AP wire story (ESPN), “Jackson [filed suit], after finding online a [published] story from the newspaper that quoted dietary expert Ellen Coleman as saying she knew personally that ‘Bo Jackson lost his hip because of anabolic abuse.’ Coleman later denied making the statement. Jackson sued the newspaper, four of its employees, MediaNews Group Inc. and MediaNews Group Interactive, Inc., for unspecified general and punitive damages.” [2] The paper later apologized and issued a public retraction. 

THE OPTION TO PASS 

Our history is irrefutably world history. Any individual or entity spewing rhetoric to the contrary is anathema. Since our coerced arrival upon these shores (long after our volitional treks to the New World), the non-melanated minority has endeavored to whitewash our complete, infallible, and authentic chronicles, relegating us chiefly to entertainment: music, dance, athletics. With the latter, the bigger, faster, or brawny the “buck”, the more rhapsodic the audience; thus, ultimately, more revenue generated for a given promotion. Run sista’ run, jump brotha’ jump, fight “boys” fight, all in the name of fan amusement and management windfalls. Croon, “spit bars/flow”, and dance your a**es off during halftime and other pauses in play. 

Come to think of it, while you’re at it, take these pills—or an injection—in the spirit of enriching the game. Waive the integrity of your cardiovascular system, your renal function, your pituitary gland, and your ensuing plans for reproduction. D*** your mental station, be it depressed, anxious, bipolar, or perhaps suicidal. The time is now, and the stakes are elevated. Disregard your future and your soul. Don’t you want the flashy crib, the ride (“whip”), the gold chain, the “Popeye’s” endorsement, the acceptance amongst the elite, V.I.P. status, the ego trip, and the cash? Even if one is at the pinnacle of his or her preferred sport, regardless of the level, drugs will inevitably be offered as a means to rewrite the record book, or perhaps become immortal. 

The sage retort would be a resounding “NO THANKS”. While the competitive juices (no pun) will flow at every stage, it is the duty of all of us to deliberate the “elephant” chillin’ in the back of the room: performance-enhancing drugs. These agents, according to surveys, have been utilized as early as the middle-school stage by both young men and women. Yes, there’s a good chance that some youngster opposing your child this weekend, in whatever travel league, ain’t drug-free! When reviewing the medicine list with any patient prior to a surgical procedure, I always inquire about PED’s and supplements (which can be equally as noxious). Do PEDs work? Yes, but  they consistently provide pyrrhic triumphs. Eventually, the devil will insist on remuneration, placing the competitors’ health—perhaps existence—in peril. 

Everyone cannot be the next Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Candace Parker, or LeBron James, no matter how many hours of practice he or she toils daily. Some of us are ordained to do extraordinary things within the athletic realm. Others must always remain cognizant of the gifts they have been granted, and accept the fact that he or she has plateaued. In these instances, one hopefully arrives at the realization that no amount of pharmacologic enhancement will catapult them to the next athletic stratum. Even if the person makes it there via medicinals, that degree of performance cannot be sustained for a protracted period of time without an exorbitant cost. For those on the cusp, or even if greatness has already been achieved, the thought of opting for a magic pill or potion can be alluring. The J.V. star wants to scintillate for the varsity. The varsity captain is all-state, and besieged with D-2 offers, but yearns for a D-1 full ride. The collegiate All-American, already a sure-fire first-rounder, longs to solidify a top-ten draft status. The solid professional wants to be a perennial All-Pro. The aging veteran, long in the tooth, wants to linger and compete, just a smidgen longer, for the currency, adulation, camaraderie, or love of sport. The best bet: go with your GOD-given gifts and stay natural. 

While COVID positive tests are predominant in the news—as they should be—positive tests for steroids, designer steroids, and human growth hormone (HGH) in sports are still omnipresent (often cloistered in-house), and the homestretch is nowhere in sight. Drug-testing methodologies frequently lag behind the chemistry of the substances themselves. Usually, the altering of just one carbon, methyl group, or element attachment to an aromatic ring is enough to stay ahead of the sanctioning bodies. In many instances, those same groups (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, IOC) couldn’t possibly care less as long as capital proliferates. Ultimately, we do reserve the option to walk away from any enterprise. 

This topic warrants further—open and frank—discussion. PEDs are long-lived, perpetually changing, and alarmingly, ubiquitous within the province called athletics. One is certainly unimpeded to abide in his or her naïveté. Always remember—if so—I have a truckload of sand to sell you prior to your next beach excursion. 

By Dr. Eric Hawkins, Knubia Locker Room

References: (1) Quinn, T. J. “Pumped Up Pioneers: The ’63 Chargers”. ‘ESPN.com’. January 28, 2009 (2) AP WIRE. “Court Dismisses Jackson’s Suit Over Steroid Allegations”. ‘ESPN.com’. April 6, 2005 

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