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Cook: Stricken athletes knew the risks of ephedra use

Friday, February 28, 2003

In what might have been the most predictable news story of the year, an attorney for the widow of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler announced plans to bring litigation against the makers of Xenadrine RFA-1, the ephedra-based diet supplement that medical officials believe contributed to Bechler's death after a spring-training workout last week.

That is so American.

If we or someone close to us does something wrong or reckless, we don't take responsibility and face the consequences. We look around and find someone to blame. Then, we sue.

If we spill hot coffee in our lap, we sue the fast-food chain that sold it to us.

If we smoke cigarettes and develop cancer, we sue the tobacco companies.

If we take health supplements without knowing the risks and die, we sue the manufacturer.

Are we pathetic or what?

That doesn't mean you shouldn't feel sympathy for Kiley Bechler. She's a young widow who is in the late stages of a pregnancy. The last thing she expected when her husband, 23, went to work Feb. 16 was that he would be dead the next morning.

Just don't feel much sympathy for Kiley Bechler's cause.

While you're at it, don't feel much for Kelci Stringer's, either. She's the widow of Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer, who allegedly took a supplement containing ephedra and died from heatstroke after a training-camp practice in 2001. She has filed a $100 million wrongful death suit against the team.

From here, it looks as if the players were the ones who were chiefly negligent.

Both had weight problems. Instead of working harder to get in better shape, they reached for the diet supplements. They were looking for a shortcut.

No disrespect to the dead, but shame on them.

Bechler and Stringer weren't the first athletes to cheat, of course. Years ago, the old-timers lived day-to-day on amphetamines or "greenies." Now, the popular choice is the ephedra-based products, which also serve as energy boosters. Popping the pills is easier than going home for a good night's rest. Certainly, it's more fun than giving up alcohol and skirts.

"Let's be real: Who doesn't take it?" Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Josh Towers told ESPN.com. "It's a common thing in clubhouses. ... Over the course of a 162-game season, sometimes you need a pick-me-up."

Let's hear it for the poor baseball players and their brutal schedules. They actually have to play day games after night games once in a while. Their hardships must be the talk of the coal mines and the construction sites.

Please.

The players are quick to point out the supplements are legal and available over the counter at health stores everywhere. They also will tell you they come with no warning labels. Sadly, both are facts. Shame on the FDA.

But a warning won't keep athletes from using ephedra. Fools still smoke, don't they? Nor will making the products illegal solve the problem. Athletes in all sports take steroids even though they are against the law without a prescription.

How anyone can take something without knowing all of the possible consequences baffles me. Then again, I'm not in a position where I can make millions in a short period of time. Athletes are. Just about all will tell you the rewards are worth the risks.

Bechler had to know there were possible dangers with his diet supplements. If he didn't, he was an idiot. Stringer's death had received mass media coverage. So had the recent deaths of college football players Rashidi Wheeler and Devaughn Darling. Who knows? Maybe it didn't even make Bechler think twice. He still took the supplements to enhance his career chances. He gambled and lost big.

The worst part of this tragedy is that others won't learn from Bechler's death. Several players already have stepped forward to say they have and will continue to use ephedra-based products. New York Yankees pitcher David Wells probably is the most prominent.

"If it helps you out for energy and you want to use it, you should be able to use it," Wells told the New York Daily News. "You just have to know your limitations."

That's the it-can't-happen-to-me mentality at its worst.

It's just too bad Wells and the others aren't smart enough to realize it can happen to anyone.

It's too bad they can't hear Bechler's and Stringer's screams from the grave.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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