Can athletes use steroids unwittingly?

A ballplayer's failed drug test may force a closer look at use of dietary supplements.

There is an element of the Rafael Palmeiro steroid saga that is a bit surreal.

After all, the star ballplayer was right when he said Monday that he would have to be "crazy" to take steroids in a year when he denied doing so in front of Congress - a year when he became the fourth player ever to accumulate 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.

Yet there he was, insinuating that he failed his drug test because of tainted supplements - long the "dog ate my homework" excuse of athletes worldwide.

It is, on one hand, plausible. Steroid traces can appear in supplements. And since baseball has never had much of a testing program until this year, some players - who won't even change socks when things go well - might cling to an old routine, ignoring risks.

Yet those risks are well known, and ignorance is an increasingly flimsy excuse. Regardless of the truth in Palmeiro's case, he could be a catalyst for a shift in clubhouses, as ballplayers realize the dangers of supplements - and the seriousness of the consequences - and begin to model their Olympic peers.

"There's an acculturation process that needs to go on," says Gary Wadler, a sports physician who works with the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Olympic athletes have lived under a much stricter testing regime for years, and their habits have changed because of it. Many don't eat food that they have not prepared. Others won't drink from unsealed bottles or leave a beverage unattended. The fear is contamination, or worse - foul play.

Major League Baseball's new testing program might not require that same level of vigilance, but it clearly calls for increased awareness. Baseball players "are a lot more lax than Olympic athletes," says Dr. Wadler. "There's an educational opportunity here."

Palmeiro suggested as much on Monday. "If my situation results in the education of current and future players about the dangers of taking anything without a prescription from a licensed physician - that is a positive," he told reporters in a conference call.

Yet for many observers, the comment didn't ring true, especially for an athlete of his caliber. "I was shocked to see that someone with Palmeiro's resources tested positive - someone who could hire someone ... to make sure he got the right pharmaceutical drugs," say Charles Yesalis, a professor of sport science at Penn State in University Park. "Elite athletes do not score drugs from a guy named Lenny down the street."

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how someone in Palmeiro's position - someone who had been accused of taking steroids and was brought before Congress to refute the allegations - could have been so reckless as to ignore the risks of supplements or nonprescribed drugs.

"At this point, there's no excuse for ignorance," says Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News.

The trainers for his team, the Baltimore Orioles, "are well thought of in my circles," says Chuck Kimmel, president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association. "Within the confines of a trainer's ability to influence an athlete's choices, I'm sure they've been available to offer advice."

The circumstances are so baffling that even Jose Canseco, the man who accused Palmeiro of taking steroids in the first place, suggested that the Oriole is the victim of a conspiracy. Others, including Dr. Yesalis and Mr. Kimmel, won't discount that possibility, although they consider it unlikely.

Otherwise, they suggest that the easiest way for Palmeiro to clear his name is to release the name of the drug for which he tested positive. Nandrolone is the type of steroid most often associated with contaminated supplements, and that would at least open to question whether his positive test was the result of contamination.

"Until we know what drug it is, it is hard to speculate," says Yesalis.

What is clear, though, is that Major League Baseball is taking its drug policy seriously. Considering that Palmeiro just reached the mark of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits a few weeks ago - virtually assuring him Hall of Fame status - he is arguably the worst person to have tested positive right now. Yet baseball announced it all the same.

Few, however, will take this as a sign that the system is working well: Major League Baseball's testing system still falls far short of the Olympic standard, which itself has significant flaws, such as the inability to test for human growth hormone. But it suggests that baseball is at least being honest with the system it has.

"One of my fears all along was that Major League Baseball would try to cover up when a major player tested positive," says Mr. Rosenthal. "I'm encouraged that we heard about it."

Adam Karlin contributed to this report.

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