When I read the story on Tommy Chaikin and the steroid nightmare he endured while he was a football player at my alma mater, the University of South Carolina (Oct. 24), I was reminded of my first encounter with anabolic steroids. It was in 1974. After my freshman season I wanted to get stronger and was frustrated that I couldn't gain weight on my own. I began taking an anabolic steroid, Dianabol, and gained 20 pounds in 30 days and increased my bench press by 70 pounds.
I never took steroids again while I was in college, but I used them often in my nine years as an offensive guard in the NFL. In a story in this magazine three years ago I talked about my taking of steroids and their widespread use in the NFL (May 13, 1985). At that time the league's commissioner, Pete Rozelle, and the director of the players' union, Gene Upshaw, claimed that steroids weren't a significant problem. But I knew differently, and after the 1985 season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped me. I still wonder if that article had something to do with my being cut and the subsequent refusal of any NFL team to touch me.
There is great controversy—and hyprocrisy—about steroid use in sports. In the NFL, management long turned its back on steroids, claiming ignorance of the subject. Now Rozelle says that about 6% of the players are on anabolic steroids and that the league is really concerned. Who is he kidding? My educated guess is that close to 50% of the linemen use steroids, which right there would be about 15% of all players. And I have to laugh at NFL officials' talking about the health risks, using that as a scare tactic, as if football isn't filled with health risks.
It is not the use of steroids that I object to, it's the way that usage is dealt with. Why is it always the athlete who is chastised for using steroids when it is the system that compels him to do so? The answer: It is easier to blame the athlete, who does what he feels he has to do to survive in this era of chemically enhanced competition, than it is to do something constructive. What's a nosetackle supposed to do when he knows his coach expects him to weigh 295 pounds and bench-press 600 pounds? Those numbers are not attainable by most men without the help of steroids.
It is time to get realistic about steroids. A decade ago the American College of Sports Medicine lost credibility with athletes when it stated that anabolic steroids do not enhance performance, a position it didn't reverse until recently. Athletes had found out that they did enhance performance. So why would they listen when the medical community cautioned about steroids' deleterious side effects? The health hazards associated with steroid use should be put into perspective. Others, including SI's editors, disagree with me, but I question whether it is really unethical to give steroids to healthy people such as football players. What about painkillers, which players use even more heavily? What about sleeping pills, Valium, diet pills and birth control pills—all are widely accepted. How are they different from steroids?
It would be great if sports were pure and steroids weren't a factor. It would be great also if we lived in a world without nuclear weapons. But can pro football be played today without steroids? If you're talking about maintaining present levels of aggression and strength, the answer is no. And it is naive to think that we can go back to the presteroid days.
By pretending that is possible, the NFL is treating the issue as no more than a p.r. problem. But it is actually getting itself into a p.r. dilemma. Publicity about steroid use has given the NFL a black eye. But it is apparent to me that the majority of sports fans are more interested in being entertained than in worrying about whether players are taking steroids.
The NFL recently announced that it will test all players for steroid use in preseason. But tests can be beat. Until a completely reliable testing methodology is developed, you will never get steroids out of sports. I believe we should recognize that players are going to take steroids, and we should establish procedures for monitoring that use for possible ill effects. Have the athletes watched by physicians trained in sports medicine, and administer everything from heart and liver tests to regular eye exams. The player would get his information from doctors instead of some guy on the street or at the gym.
I think athletes would welcome this change. At South Carolina I received my Dianabol on a prescription from a team doctor, and although that may sound sensational today, remember that steroids were less of an issue back then. At least the doctor who wrote that prescription took my blood pressure and checked me over before doing so.