Alzado's steroid lesson is likely to go unheeded

JOHN EISENBERG

July 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

You see Lyle Alzado on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his shocking pallor a lesson in the danger of steroids, and you figure people finally will start getting the message.

You listen to NFL talent scouts say players literally are shrinking, an obvious result of the league's new policy of testing randomly for steroids, and you figure the worst is over.

You read about the passage of a federal law making it illegal to use steroids, and you figure the tide must be turning.

You are wrong.

"Oh, maybe use will diminish some, but it'll never go away, not even close," said Dr. Bill Howard, the head of Union Memorial Hospital's sports medicine clinic.

Howard has studied the problem, talked to countless athletes and come to what he calls a "disheartening" understanding about the place of steroids in sports today.

"One time, I asked an Olympic athlete if he would take steroids knowing it was guaranteed to take 10 years off his life -- guaranteed -- and he said, 'How soon can I take it?' " Howard said.

Many NFL players are no different, he said. Tell them they can either a) take steroids, live the glorious NFL life and die young, or b) not take steroids, live 20 years longer and work as a bouncer in a bar, and "they'd knock you over getting to the steroids," Howard said.

"We're talking about kids 20 or 25 years old. Big, strong kids, the toughest in town. They aren't thinking about dying. They think they're going to live forever. If they can find a ticket to the NFL, they won't think twice."

What's wrong with it? Aren't they free to do what they want with their bodies? The answer is yes, but it is insidious manipulation. The risks are numerous.

There are strong indications now that steroids significantly increase the risk of heart attack. There is also a much greater chance of injury when muscles grow too big for the bones that support them. And heavy use often results in a "steroid rage," a terrible anger that renders users almost unable to function without fighting.

And, anyway, a contest isn't fair when steroid use is rampant. It isn't so much the best team or athlete that wins as the one with the best steroid supplier. Just look at Ben Johnson's slow times since coming back steroid-free.

Howard said the random-testing plans now used by the NFL, colleges and Olympics should scare off some athletes. But not many.

"What's going to happen is they'll just get smarter," he said. "They'll learn different techniques, learn how to mask the steroids, when to stop, how to use them in the off-season and pass tests. They'll say to themselves, 'I won't use them like Alzado did, but I'll still use them.' "

Alzado's story -- how years of steroid use may have given him brain cancer -- certainly brought attention to the problem, but there is widespread skepticism in the medical community.

Alzado said he took steroids for years, but his cancer didn't surface until he passed 40 and began taking human growth hormones, which, Howard said, "are completely different than steroids," a far more radical, potentially dangerous way to put muscles on muscles.

Also, there is no proof, nor will there ever be, that those growth hormones caused his cancer.

"Still, it's good he came out, because maybe it will scare at least some people," Howard said. "But the plain truth is that, to make it in the NFL as a lineman, you need to take steroids. So players will still take them."

Making them illegal won't have much impact. The fact that cocaine is illegal certainly hasn't made a difference.

And it is foolish to think that high-profile stories such as Alzado's will scare thousands into stopping. Did Lenny Bias' death? No.

Of course, with the new federal law passing and the NFL and Olympics installing more sophisticated tests, it is probably true that steroid use is at least no longer increasing.

But no one in the know is saying the decline is going to be particularly significant.

"Steroids are like the nuclear bomb: They're here to stay," Howard said. "We know how to make them, and we know people want them. Once you're in a situation like that, you can't get rid of them."

We probably won't ever know how many athletes we've cheered have tainted their performances by using steroids. We know about Ben Johnson and a few others, but the numbers are far, far greater. Alzado says so, and he isn't the first, and I believe him.

I'm a steroid cynic. Too many doctors have told me to trust my eyes when it comes to detecting steroid users. If someone has muscles that are absurdly large, and perhaps acne and premature baldness, chances are good he, or she, has used steroids. Lifting weights can only develop so much muscle.

So I walk into locker rooms and clubhouses and see dozens of athletes with cartoon muscles, and I nod my head. Steroids were the great athletic secret of the '80s, and perhaps the saddest part is that so many coaches and officials knew about it and turned their heads.

The word is getting out now that they are dangerous, and illegal, but don't expect much of a change. As they say in the locker room, winning is the only thing.

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