Between Ken Griffey's big splash (page 30) and John Rocker's appeal of his 73-day suspension, baseball's decision last week to continue to allow players to use androstenedione caused hardly a ripple. Given the findings of a just-completed Harvard study on andro funded in part by Major League Baseball and the players' union, that stance is shameful.
Andro, of course, is the dietary supplement made famous by Mark McGwire during his record-setting 70-home-run season in 1998. That use sparked a debate over the validity of the record and a rush for the over-the-counter substance classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a nutritional supplement but by some medical experts as a steroid. ( McGwire, to his credit, said he stopped taking andro before the '99 season.)
In the study, conducted by Harvard endocrinologists Benjamin Leder and Joel Finkelstein, 42 healthy men aged 20 to 40 were given 300 milligrams of andro, the daily dose recommended by the makers of andro-based supplements, once a day for seven days. Results showed that the supplement, while causing no short-term ill effects, raised the body's testosterone level an average of 34% above normal. Higher testosterone levels have been associated with increased muscle mass, which is why andro is seen by many as a legal alternative to anabolic steroids—and why it's so popular. But high testosterone levels have also been linked to elevated cholesterol counts, cardiovascular disease and liver dysfunction, among other problems. According to NYU Medical School professor Gary Wadler, the author of Drugs and the Athlete, those potential dangers are amplified as the dosage of andro increases. "The people I've talked to are taking four and five times the recommended amount," says Wadler. "We're talking about a very, very serious public health problem."
Commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Don Fehr have called for a second study, which they hope will determine whether elevated levels of testosterone enhance athletic performance. But given that few in the medical community dispute testosterone's effect on performance, and that virtually every other major athletic organization—including the NFL, the NCAA and the IOC—has banned andro, baseball's wait-and-see approach is irresponsible.
In any event, baseball may not have the luxury of waiting for that second study. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency, in conjunction with the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, is studying andro, a development that raises the possibility that the substance could be reclassified as an anabolic steroid under U.S. law. It would then be available only with a doctor's prescription. "Baseball needs to recognize that the potential dangers of andro are many," says White House spokesman Bob Weiner, "and that it should be doing much more than just sitting around and waiting."
Inaction gives tacit approval to the ingesting by thousands of teens of a product that works like an anabolic steroid, with unknown long-term side effects. If for no other reason than that, baseball must outlaw andro.
JOHN ROCKER CASE
John Rocker's most powerful ally in his appeal of his suspension may not be the players' association but precedent. Most people know that Rocker's lineage as an inflammatory speaker martyred by baseball's disciplinarians traces back at least as far as former Reds owner Marge Schott, who in 1993 was suspended for a year and fined $25,000 for insensitive remarks about blacks and Jews. Less familiar is former Yankees outfielder Jake Powell, baseball's first muzzle victim.
New York acquired Powell from the Senators in 1936 for Ben Chapman, whose popularity in New York had waned after he made anti-Semitic comments (for which he was never disciplined). Before a road game against the White Sox on July 29, 1938, the Yankees found out what they had really gotten in return. During a live pregame radio interview, WGN's Bob Elson innocuously asked Powell how he spent his off-seasons, to which Powell, a Dayton resident, replied that he worked as a cop and liked to beat "n——-s" over the head with his nightstick.
Elson cut the interview short, but not short enough. Hundreds of calls from outraged listeners flooded the station, the Yankees' hotel and the office of commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The next day prominent members of Chicago's black community, including executives of the Urban League and the Defender, the city's black paper, protested at Comiskey Park and called for a lifetime ban of Powell.