Alzado's story isn't quite true

July 23, 1991|By Arthur Caplan | Arthur Caplan,Knight-Ridder

Lyle Alzado, a 42-year-old former football star, has brain cancer. That is sad. Lyle Alzado is omnipresent in the media, blaming 20 years of steroid use for the cancer that grew in his brain. That is silly.

Why are so many of us paying such rapt attention to Alzado's theories about cancer? Something about the guy apparently strikes a chord in a lot of Americans, particularly men from 20 to 50 years old. The chord does not make a pretty sound.

Alzado was a standout defensive tackle during the '70s and '80s for the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Raiders. As a member of the Raiders, he stuck out as a tough guy on a team that prided itself on having the meanest players in football.

Alzado was not a nice guy. He played dirty on the field. He behaved like an idiot off it. He spent a great many hours chasing down those who looked at him the wrong way and pounding them into a more respectful demeanor. He mistreated and abused his wife.

Part of the reason for Alzado's lunacy on and off the field was that he was taking large amounts of steroids. Steroids are known increase aggressiveness and lead to mood swings.

Almost every football fan older than 10 knew that Alzado, like many other linemen in the NFL, was using steroids. So did his coaches, trainers, team owners and the NFL commissioner. They had to know, either by looking at the size of men like Alzado, or because ex-NFL athletes were more than willing to tell anyone who asked. But no one cared because the image that the NFL wanted to sell was one of size, strength, violence and power.

Lyle Alzado was the epitome of the NFL's marketing image of manliness: mean, big and tough. I bought that image, and so did millions of other football fans. But not without guilt. We all knew that guys like Alzado were taking health risks to create that image.

Now, Alzado is dying, and many of us are willing to believe that his cancer is a form of retribution for the life he led. The problem with that is there's no evidence that steroids cause brain cancer. No cancer expert I have talked to believes that steroid abuse is a cause of brain cancer -- liver problems and infertility, yes; a malignant brain tumor, no.

If that is so, then why listen to Alzado's opinions on the cause of his cancer? My hunch is that Alzado's tragedy serves other needs.

For one, we desperately want to persuade young Americans to stay away from drugs. For another, some men feel bad about indulging their fantasies of masculinity on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights by making heroes out of people who behaved like Alzado.

But kids won't stop abusing drugs because we tell them horror stories that are not true. And men will not arrive at a more enlightened view of masculinity by accepting the idea that God or fate punishes those who act like Lyle Alzados.

Even if he wants to see it that way, Alzado's life is not a morality play. Give him credit for what he did best: knocking offensive guards on their butts and sacking quarterbacks. Let's not turn him into something he is not.

* Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota.

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