Individual responsibility gets lost in blame game


February 28, 2003|By Mike Preston

THE WIDOW OF Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler might take legal action against the maker of the weight-loss supplement that is believed to have played a part in her husband's Feb. 17 death.

In Minnesota, the NFL's Vikings have denied any responsibility after a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit was brought against them and other parties by the widow of Korey Stringer. Team officials claim the same diet supplement contributed to the lineman's death from heatstroke during training camp in 2001.

We live in a finger-pointing world. People want to blame McDonald's because they are obese. Lung cancer victims sue tobacco companies because they couldn't break the habit. A coal miner wins a multimillion-dollar suit against his company despite working there 20 years and knowing the risk of developing black lung disease.

Sometimes, we just need to look in the mirror.

Since Bechler, 23, collapsed on an Orioles practice field on Feb. 16 and died of heatstroke the next morning, we've heard about possible litigation against Major League Baseball, the players union and even the Orioles, but none of them is to blame.

Bechler's death should be linked to Bechler himself.

We all feel compassion for the young man and his family. His widow, Kiley, 22, is expecting their child in April. Overcoming death is never easy, but it's even more tragic with someone so young and still years away from entering the prime of his life personally and professionally.

But Bechler had to know the risk he was taking using ephedrine. There have been reports estimating between 60 to 70 percent of major-leaguers use the supplement, which increases the heart rate and body temperature. Labels on bottles of Xenadrine RFA-1 suggest you should consult a physician before using the product if you have liver problems, which Bechler did.

There has been a recent painful history of those who have used ephedrine products and their untimely demise, such as Northwestern University football player Rashidi Wheeler and Florida State linebacker DeVaughn Darling.

And, of course, Stringer.

Bechler had an option. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong one, but again, it was solely his choice to make.

You admire his widow for considering legal action against the supplement maker, Cytodyne Technologies of Manasquan, N.J., because she has expressed a desire to keep others from being hurt by using the over-the-counter product. There also has been a major movement to get Major League Baseball to ban the supplement, as the NCAA, NFL and International Olympic Committee have done.

But anyone who thinks that this will make a significant impact is naive. It's all about personal decisions. The NFL had horrid stories of linemen such as Lyle Alzado and Steve Courson using steroids, and the league banned the substance, but there is still significant use.

Players are bigger, stronger and faster, and it's not just because of more nutritional awareness and advanced weight- lifting techniques. You can buy masking agents over the counter just as easily as you can purchase ephedrine. A lot of players use steroids up until training camp, then stop because of the NFL's random testing policy, which is why some of them lose 30 to 35 pounds during the regular season.

Enormous pressure comes with the fame and money of playing in the major sports leagues. Owners and coaches are demanding, and they should be, because they are paying out millions of dollars every season.

They expect players to report to camp in shape, and those who don't end up taking shortcuts. Stringer, an offensive tackle, had a history of failing to make weight requirements in minicamp and training camp. Some of his Vikings teammates said they saw him use ephedrine before his final workout.

Bechler had a weight problem, too.

Now, who's to blame for that? Major League Baseball, the players union or the Orioles?

Major-league owners such as the Orioles' Peter Angelos, because of the investment in players, hire some of the best physicians and trainers in the world to provide top care. Everything is usually well-scripted, from Day One until the team heads north for Opening Day.

Bechler reported to spring training overweight. The temperatures in Florida were moderate, but even then he had problems completing workouts. He collapsed while working out, then died of heatstroke the next morning after his body temperature soared to 108.

Baseball soon will ban ephedrine. It has to now, because the pressure is too immense. The league will pin up more posters on clubhouse walls about the supplement's dangers and make more seminars available to players.

But the bottom line is that it's like cigarettes, alcohol, steroids and even cocaine, and only an athlete can make the final decision about what he or she puts in his or her body.

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