Bush appeal to set example for youngsters is applauded

Proposal by president to do away with steroids hits home in sports world


January 22, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

Major league commissioners, team owners, elite athletes and high school sports officials applauded President Bush yesterday for using the high-profile stage of the State of the Union address to call for the abolition of performance-enhancing drugs.

Young athletes emulate what they see on TV, and by holding professionals to a higher standard, the president elevated the debate, they said.

"The president really is appealing to young people, and I hope that didn't go over people's heads," said Ron Belinko, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County public schools.

Said Bob Wade, director of athletics for Baltimore's public schools: "So many things have happened this past year where professional athletes have taken enhancement drugs to improve their performance, starting with the player [pitcher Steve Bechler] from the Orioles. It really hurts our youth."

In Tuesday's speech, the president told Congress:

"To help children make right choices, they need good examples. Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example. The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message -- that there are short cuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character.

"So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now."

But Dr. Andrew Tucker, director of primary care sports medicine for the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Ravens' team physician, said that while "we need to educate the athletes and need to continue to test and we need to continue to be vigilant about it, it's debatable how much of a public health issue anabolic steroids are."

Tucker would have advised the president to "hit home" about ephedra, which he said affects millions more Americans than steroids and has a "more important big-picture effect on general health."

The Food and Drug Administration said last month it would ban the weight-loss supplement after a comprehensive review showed it was too dangerous to remain on the market.

The action came 10 months after the ephedra-related death of Bechler and six years after the FDA first proposed regulating the natural stimulant, which constricts the blood vessels, speeds up the heart and can raise body temperature.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig expressed support for the president, who was part of the Texas Rangers' ownership group from 1989 to 1998 and ran the team as managing general partner until he was elected governor of Texas in 1994.

"While we at Major League Baseball believe that our new drug-testing program is a good first step, we recognize that continuing vigilance and evolution are necessary if we are to reach our goal of zero tolerance," Selig said in a statement.

Baseball owners have long sought to shift blame for steroid use in the major leagues to the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has resisted most efforts to test baseball players for recreational and performance-enhancing drugs.

Union officials have long opposed random testing by management on civil liberties grounds, but acceded to public pressure for a steroid-testing program in August 2002 after retired stars Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with the charge that use of performance-enhancing drugs was rampant in major league baseball. Canseco played for the Rangers from 1992 through 1994.

Major League Baseball's steroid testing program includes fines and suspensions for repeated violations, but it has drawn criticism from drug abuse experts because it does not include year-round testing and the penalties are relatively light until a player has been caught several times.

Frank Uryasz, who started the NCAA's drug testing program and now runs it out of his Kansas City, Mo.-based National Center for Drug Free Sports, said that the NFL and NCAA drug testing programs are generally well-regarded among his colleagues, but that baseball's is not.

"Baseball has its work cut out," he said.

The NFL has conducted year-round random testing for steroids since 1990, a process that involves some 10,000 tests. The league began annual testing for steroids for informational purposes in 1987.

In 1989, it started suspending players for positive results on those annual tests. Since 1989, 48 players have been suspended for using steroids. And late last year, four members of the Oakland Raiders reportedly tested positive for the previously undetectable steroid THG, which was unmasked last summer.

Two years ago, the NFL became the first pro sports league to ban ephedra.

Ravens owner Art Modell said that he watched the speech Tuesday night and wasn't surprised that the president brought up steroids.

"We are role models for young kids," he said. "We are the obvious people to depict to set the example."

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