Pervasiveness of pills dulls outrage against steroid-using stars

Amid the talk on the message boards of 4-lane.com about slugger Barry Bonds and what his hitting records should or should not mean, someone known as T_Rex paused:

"One thing that I find amusing is that the problem ... most people seem to have with steroids is that they're 'performance enhancing' drugs. Doesn't Creatine enhance performance by allowing athletes to build additional muscle mass? Creatine is legal and sold over the counter."

In his moment of reflection, T_Rex hit upon what is perhaps one of the most fundamental - and overlooked - aspects of the drug scandal now vexing American sports. For the past decade in particular, America's growing reliance on drugs may have blurred the line between what is cheating and what is simply an attempt to build a better body through chemistry.

To some analysts, baseball's "Juiced Era" is built on attitudes like those of T_Rex, forged by the rise of countless dietary supplements, including Creatine. Others, however, find even deeper roots, pointing to the explosion of prescription drugs - for everything from weight loss to cholesterol levels - as an indicator of a society that is increasingly comfortable with pills and creams instead of discipline or discomfort.

"The acceptance of chemical enhancement as an integral part of our society absolutely plays a part in this," says Charles Yesalis, a professor of sport science at Penn State in University Park. "It does dull [the outrage]."

Recent revelations from the federal drug investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, have sparked at least enough outrage to break through the ambivalence that typically surrounds allegations of steroid abuse in pro sports. Last week, reports surfaced that Bonds told a grand jury he took substances that prosecutors believe were steroids. This week, the player's union of Major League Baseball agreed to stiffen drug testing. New rules will begin to be ironed out as soon as next week.

Yet the drug crisis now laid bare by BALCO was allowed to build in part because fans had little desire to confront it. As recently as last year, 35 percent of Americans were not at all bothered by performance-enhancing drugs, while 33 percent were only somewhat bothered, according to a New York Times poll.

In many respects, the ambivalence is a reflection of fans' growing cynicism. But the trend cannot be dissociated from the country's cultural attitude toward drugs, says Dr. Yesalis. He is fond of running down the list of drugs tailored to people of every age - from Ritalin for overactive children to Red Bull energy drinks for teens and Prozac for adults. While he and other observers don't suggest that Red Bull is in the same category as steroids, they say that the growing universe of pills and elixirs has brought a change in attitudes and expectations.

"There is a desensitization of folks around this stuff," says Jeff O'Brien of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. Today, some 44 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, and 17 percent take three or more, up from 39 percent and 12 percent, respectively, a decade ago. Advertising for products like Levitra and Ambien has flooded the airwaves.

The more direct link to steroid use, though, is the emergence of dietary supplements. When Congress freed supplements from the strict federal rules that govern medical drugs in 1994, a new industry sprouted.

The crop included pills and powders that went right to edge of the line between supplement and steroid, legal and illegal. The year he hit 70 home runs, Mark McGwire famously took Androstenedione - a steroid precursor that is now banned by baseball. The once-popular supplement Ephedra, a stimulant, is now illegal.

"We have created an industry and a mind-set," says Gary Wadler, a physician and an expert on performance-enhancing drugs. The attitude is that "you really need chemicals from a bottle to achieve and to be better than you are."

As a result, steroids are, to some, simply the ultimate power shake. On the baseball boards of ESPN.com, OneCentX1 holds forth on the hypocrisy of condemning steroid users: "Don't tell me that every player in every sport does not take some kind of pill or some kind of drink or bar or liquid or powder."

In this environment, steroids have slipped into a gray area. To many, they are more than supplements, but not truly illicit drugs - though laws punishing its abuse are nearly as strict as for cocaine or heroin.

For one, steroid users aren't likely to hang out in alleys with a hangdog look and a handgun. "When you're dealing with performance-enhancing drugs, users could be an All- American boy or girl," says Yesalis.

Moreover, the side effects from steroids are seen not over days but over years. "You can get away with it for a long time," says William Roberts, president of the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis.

That makes it all the more important to draw a clear line now, while there is momentum. "As a culture, we're at a choice point," says Thomas Murray, a sports ethicist at the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y. "We can either throw our lot in with the principles of performance enhancement, or we can hold fast to some notion of sport as human."

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