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The Uneasy Case for Steroids

Recent steroid scandals have pro-steroid advocates saying we should legalize performance enhancing drugs.
January 10, 2013, 8:05pm
Barry Bonds: In it to win it. Image via Sports Agent Blog

When baseball writers cast their votes for the baseball Hall of Fame this year, they failed to elect a single player—the first time that has happened since 1996, according to ESPN, and just the second time in four decades. Among the list of rejected players were absolute titans of the game, including Roger Clemens, the league’s only seven-time Cy Young award winner, and Barry Bonds, the league’s only seven-time MVP and owner of baseball’s single-season and career home run records.

Sammy Sosa hit 609 career home runs—eight on the all time list. He, too, failed to make the cut.


The common denominator? Steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

Neither Bonds, Clemens, nor Sosa has admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), though all three have gotten in hot water legally and publicly over the last decade during steroid-related court proceedings. A player needs to earn votes by 75 percent of members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to make the Hall of Fame, but none of the three, each among the most accomplished players of all time, even cracked 40 percent. (Sosa, who according to a New York Times report in 2009, tested positive in 2003 for PEDs, received a mere 12.5 percent.)

Other PED-related scandals have plagued baseball in recent months, but isn’t the only sport implicated. Lance Armstrong may be the most famous alleged doper in the world right now. Following the release last fall of damning evidence by anti-doping officials that he was juicing, Armstrong was banned for life from competing in Olympic sports and stripped of his seven Tour de France Titles. (What is it with 7, anyway?) Reports say he is considering admitting to doping publicly in hopes of restoring his eligibility—perhaps during his interview with Oprah, airing Jan. 17. But even Oprah’s numinous, redemptive powers won’t get Lance his medals back.

Still, a funny thing happened on the way to the crucifixion. For all the finger-wagging against PED use, a counter-argument is emerging. Steroids and PEDs, it says, should be legalized. Or at least de-stigmatized.


“This fake moral outrage about the ‘disgraceful state of competitive sports nowadays’ that serves as a running dialogue every time an athlete is busted for steroids is just about played out,” wrote sports columnist, Jen Floyd Engel, for Fox Sports, in August. “The fact is almost every single argument against performance-enhancing drugs falters when viewed in light of how we live the rest of our lives.”

Whether that’s true or not, Engel isn’t alone. Secretive, even cautious at first, the pro-steroid argument is growing in confidence, and in prominence.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

The potential risks of PEDs are well documented. According to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, PEDs may cause everything from shrunken testicles to severe acne to cardiomyopathy, as well as liver problems, heart attacks, stroke, enlarged prostates and a number of psychiatric disorders.

Still, all sports carry risk, as we’ve seen from football and hockey concussions, not to mention the deaths of racecar drivers like IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, or NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. For that and other reasons, Forbes sports writer, Chris Smith, says steroids in professional sports should be legalized. One of his main arguments is that PED use is already so pervasive and hard to prosecute that it’s hamstringing athletes who follow the rules and hamstringing the potential greatness of sport more generally.

“Various professional sports leagues have attempted to set a level playing field by testing for drug use and suspending those found guilty,” he writes.


It’s a noble effort, but it’s clearly not working. Stiff punishments have done little to reduce the number of cyclists caught cheating every year; as Deadspin helpfully points out, the inheritors of Lance Armstrong’s seven abandoned Tour de France titles have all been implicated in doping scandals. Major League Baseball also hands down suspensions each season to players caught using outlawed substances, and it’s absurd to think those players are the only ones guilty of juicing.

If we legalized PED’s, he continues,

Not only would the playing field suddenly be even for all players, it would be at a higher level. A huge part of watching sports is witnessing the very peak of human athletic ability, and legalizing performance enhancing drugs would only help athletes climb even higher. Steroids and doping will help pitchers to throw harder, home runs to go further, cyclists to charge for longer and sprinters to test the very limits of human speed.

The notion that clean sports even exist, the argument goes, is a sham: “Get rid of drug testing,” said Charles Yesalis, a professor of health policy and administration, Exercise, and sport science, in an interview with Fox Sports. “Do you really think we had a clean Olympics? All testing does is to continue to perpetuate the myth that sports are clean.”

What Man Boobs?

Another myth, apparently, is the notion that steroids are bad for you. “You see all these reports that steroids cause heart disease, cancer, strokes and so on,” said Dr. Norman Fost, a professor of bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, in one of the Fox Sports articles cited above. “Then it gets repeated over and over again. There is not a single study out there that proves steroids cause any of these diseases.”

“Therapeutic use of testosterone has been shown to be safe,” sportswriter A.J. Perez notes.


A 1996 paper on use of synthetic testosterone published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed notable gains in strength with no major side effects other than a handful of cases of breast tenderness and increased acne among the 40 men ages 19-40 who completed the study.

Still, the problem with athlete doping, as Perez concedes, is that so many athletes use at extreme levels—way higher than in the 1996 study. High steroid use can’t be tested accurately in a lab setting because it’s simply unethical:

"To study the use of steroids at the levels athletes currently use them is not going to happen,” said [Dr. Gary] Wadler, a New York internist who is a former chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) prohibited list and methods subcommittee. “We don’t allow people to take things that will hurt themselves (in studies). We can’t tell athletes to take doping doses of steroids over a long period of time just to see how many get sick and die. No institutional review board would allow that study to take place.”

Some athletes and other steroid users insist, however, that they can be taken safely. In a Reason magazine article from 2005 titled, “In Defense of Steroids,” author Aaron Steinberg examined a few arguments from Jose Canseco’s autobiography, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.

Jose Canseco. Steroid side effects may include total douchebaggery. Image via the Broward Palm Beach New Times

According to Canseco, the only negative side effect he suffered was a set of shrunken balls. The benefits, on the other hand, were myriad:

Most people assume that steroids are only useful for building thick layers of muscle and cranking home runs. As Canseco tells it, though, steroids and human growth hormone can be put to much more sophisticated use. If taken in moderate doses and in certain combinations over a period of time, they can help build strength, quickness, and, most importantly, stamina. The baseball season--a 162-game slog--goes from the beginning of April to the end of September (barring a postseason run). Most players wear out at some point during that period. If a power hitter can use steroids to stay fresh over the course of a season, he could pound out a few extra home runs before October--and that's without any gain in bulk. With millions of dollars at stake, it only makes sense that players would look into this seriously.


The sports press has been quick to diagnose him with steroid-induced fragility, but Canseco insists that steroids helped him cut down on trips to the disabled list and to recover faster when he was hurt. In his book, Canseco characterizes himself as a scrawny, injury-prone kid who started experimenting with steroids in the minor leagues, just prior to his rapid ascent into the majors. Canseco claims that he began to spike his workouts with liquid testosterone combined with Deca Derbol in 1985. That year he shot from a double-A team in Huntsville, Alabama, to the major leagues. The next season he won Rookie of the Year, and two seasons after that, he was Most Valuable Player.

The steroids-are-safe argument is one of the reasons steroid proponents trumpet another, more popular sentiment: Strict anti-steroid-ism is morally specious and hypocritical. Like criminalizing marijunana over alcohol, it’s an arbitrary attack, some say. It’s an assault on freedom and even masculinity.

Roid Rage

As with any subversive group—from conspiracy theorists to anarchists to white power assholes—proponents of steroid and PED use have found fertile ground for their ideas in the dark alleyways and safe houses of the internet.

Here, the arguments can get a bit gnarly. The world of pro-steroid websites and user forums can be a strange, even scary place—an enabling, often uncritical echo chamber, reminiscent of “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” websites that give refuge and “thinspiration” to anorexics and bulimics. (“Pro Mia is the belief that bulimia is a life style,” reads the tagline to one such popular website. “…it means we choose NOT to go into recovery at this time.”) Pro-steroid discussion threads commonly emerge on run-of-the-mill body-building sites. Meanwhile, some websites are dedicated entirely to the pro-steroid cause.


The latter are clearinghouses of articles purporting to tell the truth about steroids. They tell people where to get steroids and offer advice on the most effective regimens. They share tips on how to mitigate side effects like hair-loss and acne, and attack the “muscle-hating psychology,” “hysteria,” and “hypocrisy” of an anti-steroid society at large that, in the words of one writer, “often pretends to be about something more than enforcing an arbitrarily and capriciously defined morality.” In reality, the writer continues, that society creates rules that “exist primarily to demonize users of steroids and PEDs as ‘sinners’ who deserve to be punished.”

Not tryin’ to hear it from them feminazis. Image via Mad Winkle.

Forum discussions can get a bit persecuted, paranoid, and, yes, a little aggro. “Seriously, I think there's an agenda,” writes “Grizzly” in a forum that boasts nearly 7,000 active users and more than 34,000 members. “I think the demasculization of society is at the heart of all women.”

“Accept it or fuck off!” writes another user about his steroid regimen. “Its almost like a bunch of angry house wifes sat around one afternoon and said, ‘Well, we can vote now, and I still feel angry and bitter… what else can we fuck with?’” writes another.

“Sexual discimination at its uttmost, it is all designed to keep you down boy,” writes a veteran member. “Get down, bend over and let the world do with you what it wants” (sic, sic, and sic throughout).

Fake Can Be Just as Good

Still, less fringe- and cringe-worthy arguments picking apart the moral positioning of anti-steroid advocates are out there. We already love fakeness, they say. We’re hypocrites.

“To say that we should reduce drugs in sport or eliminate them because they increase performance, is simply like saying that we should eliminate alcohol from parties because it increases sociability,” said Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, in a 2008 debate moderated by sportscaster, Bob Costas. “Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport,” he added, “it's been a part of sport through its whole history, and to be human is to be better, or at least to try to be better.”


Dr. Fost participated in the same debate. “Anabolic steroids do have undesirable side effects: acne, baldness, voice changes … infertility,” he said. “But sport itself is far more dangerous, and we don't prohibit it. The number of deaths from playing professional football and college football are 50 to 100 times higher than even the wild exaggerations about steroids. More people have died playing baseball than have died of steroid use.”

Indeed a lot of things we do and condone are more dangerous than steroids, the argument proceeds—and just as dishonest. “We love fake,” Engel, the Fox Sports columnist, notes. “Facebook ‘friends,’ Twinkies and double Ds not endowed by our creator.”

We love short cuts. Weight-loss surgery, no-fault divorce and CliffsNotes. We love lies, too. Living in houses we cannot afford, living with debt we cannot handle and arguing — not unlike, say, Brady Anderson — this is all a result of hard work. So where exactly does the moral authority to sermonize on the horror that is steroids in sports come from?

Isolated to sports, athletes use plenty of other means that are “unnatural” to enhance their performance, others note. “If the andro that helped [baseball player, Mark] McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 was an unnatural, game-altering enhancement, what about his high-powered contact lenses?” wrote William Saletan in a 2005 article for Slate

“Natural” vision is 20/20. McGwire's custom-designed lenses improved his vision to 20/10, which means he could see at a distance of 20 feet what a person with normal, healthy vision could see at 10 feet. Think what a difference that makes in hitting a fastball. Imagine how many games those lenses altered.

It’s at least conceivable that, in keeping with the argument used for legalizing other drugs, or for keeping guns legal, that by getting it out in the open, we can at least do a better job of regulating it and stemming abuse. Until then, I’ll still tread lightly around the dead lifters at the gym.