Monday, December 06, 2004

Some Rambling Steroid Thoughts

I'm really trying to keep from thinking about the BALCO controversy more than I have to. I really got burned out on the issue in one of the 58 other times that it came up.

Derek Zumsteg at USS Mariner had a nice post on the topic a few days ago.

There really is an open question as to how much steroids really help a baseball player. All things being equal, steroids will help you hit a baseball farther. However, the key part of that phrase is the "all things being equal" part. There are a lot of things going on in a swing or a delivery, and a strength is only one factor. Form is the most important aspect of any attempt to hit a baseball. Bat speed is largely dictated not by brute strength, but by a smooth, short stroke devoid of wasted motion.

Will Carroll has written a lot about the kinetic chain that makes a pitcher's delivery. A hitter's swing is clearly the same sort of thing. Skinny, 23 year old Ken Griffey Jr could smash a ball 450 feet more easily than musclebound Gabe Kapler ever could because his smooth, easy swing didn't waste energy and his entire body's strength was involved in the generation of bat speed. His legs, hips, abdominal muscles, chest, arms, and wrists all worked together.

Another factor is flexibility. A bulked up late model Jose Canseco was clearly inferior to his big, but more technically sound 1988 version. Part of that is almost certainly due to flexibility. Getting full extension is just as important in hitting a baseball with consistent, clean contact as it is in being able to consistently hit a golf ball consistently and hard. Form is everything. Well, not everything, but it is the most important part of the equation.

Barry Bonds has had a remarkable career because he's a gifted hitter with off the charts hand-eye coordination, one of the most perfect swings in the history of mankind, an extremely disciplined approach at the plate, and reflexes that would be the envy of many a fighter pilot. Has his strength played a part in his late career power spike? I don't know. I really don't. He does maintain flexibility. His increased muscle mass obviously hasn't affected his mechanics. So it might have.

I stink at playing baseball. I always have. The reason is pretty simple. My body just isn't wired in a way that makes it easy for me to hit a moving target with a stick. I don't have the coordination or the reflexes to make split second adjustments to where the ball is going. Barry Bonds never had that problem.

That aside, there's the issue of how to treat this problem. The biggest issue in my eyes isn't fair play, but the health of the players. We just don't know what the long term ramifications are for high level exposure to anabolic steroids. The studies haven't been done. There's a lot of conjecture about cancer, liver and kidney failure, pituitary function, heart disease, joint problems, muscle pulls, and mood disorders, but no real medical evidence indicating whether this is urban legend or a real side effect.

Another issue is how the effects and side effects differ from those of steroid precursors, HGH, and the thousands of other products out there, both that we know of and that we don't know about.

So what do I think should happen? I think the policies should change. The league should take tough action, but maintain a sense of due process, protect the privacy of players, take an active role in helping the players avoid banned substances, and be an active party in studying what the real effects of these drugs are.

First things first, what do I mean by that last part. I mean that they should get with medical researchers to study what the use of anabolic steroids really does to a body compared to people with similar routines who DON'T use steroids. The same goes for HGH, creatine, andro, and other products. Do they work? Are they safe? This will be a long term project, and wouldn't pay real dividends for a long time, but the league's first responsibility is to the safety of its players.

Also, be proactive in helping the players understand what is banned and what is not banned. And be proactive in deciding what to ban. One of the worst aspects to the allegedy cutting edge policies of the NFL and IOC is the maze of banned products that an athlete, trainer, or official has to deal with. First things first, with a tip of the cap to Jim Miller, no athlete should ever be punished for using a cold medicine that has a mild stimulant. Secondly, it should be relatively easy for a player to look for dietary supplements and make an educated decision as to whether a product is legal or not. To that effect, any sports governing body should give a comprehensive book of information to players, trainers, etc, that not just lists banned substances, but a list of the brand names of products they're found in, any FDA warnings associated with products, etc. It should be updated at least 3 times a year (I'm thinking at the start of spring training, at the All Star break, and at the end of the regular season). There should be somewhere that the player can go to have ANY questions they have answered by a league source. The league should have an associated lab that will TEST over the counter products for banned substances and report back to the athlete on its findings. Nobody should ever be punished because they aren't a biochemist.

Another thing to avoid is the retroactive ban. The IOC can ban substances and test PREVIOUS samples for those substances. That's clearly out of the bounds of fair play. It is insane. You can't change the rules and then punish those who were playing by the official rules as they were written at the time. Any additions to the list of banned substances should have a grace period for testing, that way something you legally took last week won't get you banned next month for breaking rules that didn't exist at the time that you took them.

Lastly, the press and the public needs to stop drinking the kool-aid that we've been drinking and accept that a large amount of substance abuse is going to be a part of life for sports from here on out and that no amount of testing is going to stop it entirely. We seem to have a public willing to ignore common sense and believe that the NFL has no drug problem because they punish a half dozen players per year. I have a bridge to sell anybody who thinks that the NFL doesn't have a steroid problem, testing and harsh penalties be damned.

The conventional wisdom with performance enhancing drugs mirrors that of the criminal justice system. Harsher is always better, and those who are accused are usually guilty until proven innocent. But at a certain point, you're in full witch hunt mode and cutting off people's arm for stealing a loaf of bread, living in a police state. Likewise, banning people for life for a first offense is mindless, kneejerk overreaction. This drug abuse problem is no different than society's overall drug use problem. Punishment is the highest profile aspect of the story, but not necessarily more important than that of education, research, and treatment.



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