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Legalize steroids; level playing field

Saturday, August 19, 2000

By Mark Madden

If you want to hate Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski for being a jerk, fine. He is. If you want to hate Romanowski for being racist, well, evidence certainly points to that being a strong possibility.

But if you want to hate Romanowski for taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs as per allegations in Sports Illustrated, you had better be prepared to hate a ton of pro athletes.

Performance-enhancing drugs -- steroids and human growth hormone in particular -- are prevalent in any sport that requires more than ordinary size and strength. Such drugs are certainly the rage in professional football.

Don't believe me? Well, consider this: The offensive linemen on the Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls weighed in at about 250 pounds. Now, 20 years later, virtually every offensive lineman in the NFL weighs well in excess of 300 pounds.

Have we become a nation of genetic freaks in the past two decades? Have that many strides been made in nutrition? In weight training? Are NFL linemen the result of some hidden attempt by the FBI to breed a race of supermen? Are these guys just fat?

No, no, no, no and, except for Jamain Stephens, no. It's steroids and growth hormone, pure and simple. Not only have athletes learned how to use them, but they also have learned how to mask them from detection through tests. The hormone is basically undetectable anyway, at least until your eyeballs grow apart.

I am not outraged by this. Quite the opposite, actually.

It's time for the government to legalize steroids and similar substances. It's time for pro sports to legalize steroids and similar substances.

Because so many athletes are using, legalizing is the only way to get a level playing field at this point. Every athlete would have the option legally. Morally and physically, each athlete would still have a choice to make. But at least the situation would be out in the open.

Steroids and like drugs could be regulated. They could be taken under the care of a team physician. Dangerous levels of usage could hopefully be avoided.

There is no way to stem steroid use in pro sports, particularly in football. Guys are jamming needles in their buttocks with both fists. Go ahead, drink spring water all day. Eat chicken breasts and egg whites until you sprout feathers and grow a beak. Lift weights until your muscles explode. But very few men become NFL-lineman size without being on the juice. By legalizing, regulating and supervising, the health risk would at least be minimized.

Of course, there's no such thing as absolutely safe steroid use. Steroids undoubtedly break your body down over the long haul.

But that's the choice an athlete makes. By maximizing physical performance, one maximizes earning potential as well. If you offered an athlete a drug that would guarantee him glory and riches but knock 10 years off his life, I dare say most would take it. Heck, I'd take it.

Ten years off the end of my life? Big deal. Those are the worst years anyway. Many would gladly sacrifice those useless days in the old folks' home for life in the fast lane now. It's a personal choice.

I'm not suggesting that teen-agers use steroids, although many do. Steroids should be legal only for those 21 and over. Some underage kids would get steroids anyway, just like they get alcohol. But that unsolvable problem is as old as the idea of controlled substances.

If steroids were legalized, some athletes would choose to not take them. Fine. I would not only respect their decision, I would applaud it. Sports should be about an athlete using his God-given gifts with no artificial help. Sports used to be that way. Not anymore.

I wish performance-enhancing drugs could be eliminated from sports. But there's no going back. NFL linemen aren't going to suddenly enter into a gentlemen's agreement to shrink.

Since there's no going back, it's time to move forward. Pro sports should come up with reasonable, realistic steroid policies.

As for using amphetamines to increase performance as per the Romanowski allegations, I don't buy it. As former major-league pitcher Jim Bouton said about "greenies" in his ground-breaking 1970 book "Ball Four," they only make you think you're doing better. They don't actually make you better.

As for legalizing amphetamines, heck, why not? Legalize everything. Legalize, regulate, supervise and tax. Better that pharmacists, legitimate doctors and Uncle Sam capitalize on America's drug lust than street dealers and Colombian gangsters.

It would be better if athletes didn't use performance-enhancing drugs. But they do. They're not going to stop, either. Right now, the situation isn't fair. Some athletes feel they can't use steroids because they're illegal. It's time to level the playing field.

I really do feel that using performance-enhancing drugs should be a personal choice. I took most of my philosophies in that regard from a friend of mine who was a pro wrestler.

He died at 41.

Mark Madden hosts a sports radio talk show from 4-8 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1250.

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