by: Gregory John “G.J.” Vitale
* Some previous users and witnesses of steroid use were sourced only with first names because they are either still active or pursuing careers in athletics and their association with this article could implicate them moving forward.
Eight years ago at my high school, I saw performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) for the first time. I saw the vial fall to the locker room floor before baseball practice one day. It landed on its owner’s backpack which sat at his feet. I didn’t see the name of the substance and I will not reveal the owner’s name, but if you told me that I was the only one to see it, I wouldn’t be surprised. However, there is no way I was the only one who knew he was a user.
He picked up the vial and nonchalantly placed it back in his locker and that was that. As far as I know, he was never approached about his sudden improvement on the field or his physical transformation from a chubby freshman to a gargantuan senior.
Today, the picture of what it was to grow up as an athlete in the steroid era is becoming clear. The “steroid era” is the name given to the period from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s when steroids and other PEDs were widely used in Major League Baseball (MLB).PEDs include steroids as well as any other substance that increases performance, including but not limited to human-growth hormone (HGH) and creatine.
Although baseball led the way in usage, other sports were far from innocent bystanders. Younger and younger athletes began taking these substances to gain an advantage on the field and to keep up with others that were doing the same.
“PEDs have been popping up in almost every sport, even ones you wouldn’t expect: golf, tennis, you name it,” said Tufts University Director of Sports Medicine Nick Mitropolous.
Although Mitropolous recalled that Tufts hasn’t had an illegal substance case in quite a while, he insists it’s because users are getting smarter about which, when, and how much they use, not because they have stopped.
Even though college and high school athletes are not currently making “a lot of money,” taking illegal substances is “a risk they’re willing to take” because it gives them an edge over their competitors, makes them better players, and gains the attention of scouts at the next level. This “risk,” however, may not be all that risky. According to many prior and current sports administration personnel (including Mitropolous himself), testing for illegal substances is not a serious threat to users.
“Have you ever heard of someone getting caught using steroids in high school sports?” said Kevin*, a 25-year-old former high school and college baseball pitcher who used PEDs in college.
“College sports even? Neither had I. It’s an easy and naive rationalization but apparently a good enough one for some kids.”
Most colleges are required to test their players only if they qualify for NCAA tournaments and when collegiate athletes are tested, they are often told well in advance the date it will happen. This gives them ample time to “flush” their body by drinking large amounts of water or by using other methods of cleansing.
“As soon as I started practices and workouts [at college] the older guys on the team were asking us new guys if they needed steroids,” recalled Chris*, a 22-year-old former college infielder.
“I was pretty shocked at how easily they could be acquired. I knew seven guys on my team who used for sure, but being an NAIA [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] school, the drug testing consisted of two not-so-random drugs tests per year. The date of the test was always announced and not once was a known user tested.”
At his college, 21-year-old offensive lineman Patrick* learned that budget cuts would prevent his school from running any more drug tests for that semester, so he said “Why not?”
Patrick is no longer a user, however.
“I stopped during the summer between my sophomore and junior year because I started to feel intense pain in my abdomen and it was obviously from the stuff I was taking,” Patrick said. “If it weren’t for the pain, I would probably still be doing them.”
At Tufts, Mitropolous made it clear that tests are only run if there is ample suspicion of use. Unless there is a telling injury or a witness comes forward, testing on the athletes is not done regularly.
It seems, then, that the only real deterrent is the negative side-effects on health and the unfair advantage over non-users. And let’s face it: if you are considering PEDs, the latter is not going to stop you. As a matter of fact, that is the main reason to do them in the first place. But for a young athlete, the former should give pause. Shouldn’t it?
“Perhaps the only area where there is no doubt or controversy is when it comes to young people: these drugs, especially anabolic steroids, are unanimously considered harmful to the young,”
wrote Caroline K. Hatton, Ph. D, the former Associate Director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, in her 2008 book Night Team.
Sadly, statements such as Dr. Hatton’s fall on the deaf ears of thousands of young athletes who have seen their heroes ascend to legends with PEDs as their catalyst.
2012 MLB All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Melky Cabrera was suspended for the remainder of the San Francisco Giants’ World Series-winning year when he tested positive halfway through the season. Cyclist Lance Armstrong was implicated in leading a PED ring and was consequently stripped of his seven Tour de France wins. And it was no surprise to haters and fans alike when New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s name came up on a known supplier’s clientele list. There is no hiding that stardom has a profound effect on the decisions of young people, especially when those decisions have to be made in the environment of anticipated success.
“I was considering PEDs because I could’ve easily gotten away with it,” Kevin said. “It would’ve helped my lifelong dream of playing professionally.”
For all of us growing up in the height of the “steroid era,” it was a decision we had to make: to dabble or not to dabble. The choice was always within arm’s reach, but the hand it was reaching for comes in many shapes and sizes. While Kevin approached one of his high school coaches during his senior year of high school about PEDs, Rogers was being approached by upperclassmen at his college. Patrick, however, told me he got all the information he needed to start, as well as the drugs themselves, online.
“I literally just went on the internet and Googled ‘legal steroids’ and sure enough there was a website called legalsteroids.com run by a company out of Lake Worth, Florida called SDI-Labs,” Patrick said. “They had discrete shipping so I just told my mom I was ordering some protein powder. They’re not hard to come by.”
The PED phenomenon is not new by any means, but the movement toward synthetic performance-enhancers is a generational concern. Because there is such immense pressure on these young athletes and the substances are easily attainable, their widespread use should not come as a surprise.
Just a couple years ago, a Wisconsin high school reported that ten players on its football team had ingested a banned substance and were subsequently suspended for the first three games of the 2012 season. The substance, called Synephrine, was contained in an over-the-counter Creatine Nitrate product called C4 Extreme. The athletes claimed ignorance, but Eric Holden, a contributor for Yahoo! Sports, hit the nail on the head:
“Any athlete who grew up in the 1990s and early-2000s knows the word “creatine” is synonymous with former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGuire, who used a combo of creatine and andro to bulk up into a home run slugger. That may be the first tip-off that C4 Extreme was a performance-enhancer.”
Granted, a certain amount of hard work still has to go into day-to-day activities and getting big in the weight room does not guarantee success on the playing field, but as Patrick pointed out, “If nothing else, I certainly felt
like I had an advantage over the other guys out there.”
The problem of PEDs is a many-faceted issue. Some talk of legalizing PEDs in sports and such a proposal raises many controversial questions about competition, health, and even morals. Such a world leaves the door open to change sport from a competitive event between athletes into a pharmaceutical rat race. Who can produce the cheapest drug with the most potent effect? The health consequences alone would shorten the lives of any athlete who submerged themselves wholeheartedly. It would spell the end of sport as we know it.
If the “steroid era” has taught us anything, it is that penalties must be enforced and potential consumers need as much incentive as possible not to partake in the craze. I call it a craze because we live in a world obsessed with immediate gratification and excess. If there is a quicker way to elevate your performance, you’ll take that opportunity head on.
“If you take anyone who has a talent and you tell them you can enhance that talent to make a lot of money, more often than not, that’s a risk they’re willing to take,” Mitropolous said. “It’s never going away.”
This is not to say every athlete, and especially those who are successful, have taken PEDs. There are a number of players from the “steroid era” who managed to stay clean and perform well. There is even more hope in our youth than statistics or writers like myself may have you believe.
I never took steroids. That’s not to say I was never around it … as early as that moment my freshman year in the locker room and as late as when I conducted interviews for this piece.
Patrick gave me the rest of his pills after we talked.
The two bottles (D-bol and Winni-V) were still about half-full when he handed them to me. According to their website, the 60-capsule bottle of D-bol is the “most powerful mass building oral on the market!” and the Winni-V pills will “add quality muscle mass and increase stamina!” Together they will set you back $159.90 plus shipping.
I wasn’t expecting to ever hold steroids. Yes, they are perfectly legal for the common man, but for those of us who saw nothing but their tainted image on SportsCenter and the sports pages of newspapers, they might as well have been heroin capsules.
I took them home and curiously opened the bottle. I made a joke to my dad that we should take them, and, within the same breath, threw them in the garbage can.
My generation was on the cusp, just when the shit was hitting the fan in Major League Baseball. We saw McGuire and Sammy Sosa go at it, Roger Clemens pitch into his 40s and acts of sheer strength. We also witnessed the downfall of these moments: when it came out that our favorite players, those we looked up to, were cheaters.
Our sources have shown that it was common for PEDs to be introduced at the high school level, but our sources are now graduating college. There is a new wave of youth athletes who are faced with this question.
This generation plays in the wake of it all.
My cousin Anthony is part of this generation. He is in high school. He tells me there are really no talks circling around his baseball team’s locker room regarding steroids. Maybe we are seeing a change in the winds. After all, at this point we are beyond the period where athletes can take them innocently. They know the history and know they cannot live outside of it. I feel confident the youth of today understand not only the moral implications of using, but also the very real health concerns at stake.
Where we have taken sports is not a good direction. The pressure is unrelenting on the youth athletes. The multimillion dollar salaries we throw at players only furthers to keep this problem alive. Steroids were a shortcut for players to improve faster and perform better, but it was also a way to ensure they were not kicked to the curb. It’s the fear of failure. This is why Mitropolous believes they will never go away. Because we have seen they are so easy to get, it is truly up to the individual which road to take …