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Steroids: A Problem Of Huge Dimensions
William Oscar Johnson
May 13, 1985
By using anabolic steroids, athletes like the Tampa Bay Bucs' Steve Courson are looking for an edge—and maybe for trouble
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May 13, 1985

Steroids: A Problem Of Huge Dimensions

By using anabolic steroids, athletes like the Tampa Bay Bucs' Steve Courson are looking for an edge—and maybe for trouble

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It is a spreading wildfire that is touching athletes at every level of sport. From NFL stars to iron pumpers in small-town gyms, from high school bench warmers to college All-Americas, thousands of American athletes, both male and female, are routinely ingesting or injecting anabolic steroids to increase their strength or improve their all-around sense of athletic and personal self-worth.

None of these drugs is supposed to be dispensed without a physician's prescription, yet a veritable cornucopia of them is available on a massive black market so blatant in its contempt for law enforcement that major dealers regularly send out direct-mail advertising and catalogs listing prices and shipping costs. In some instances coaches dispense steroids to players. Players sell them to other players. Some doctors and pharmacists freely prescribe or dispense them to athletes. Owners of some bodybuilding and weightlifting gyms and hangers-on at such places peddle them like chewing gum. Jocks in almost every sport use the stuff—track and field, swimming, boxing, wrestling, triathlon, cycling and, of course, powerlifting and bodybuilding. Tony Fisher, 24, who plans to compete in June for the title of Mr. Pittsburgh, said, "You enter a competition in bodybuilding without using steroids and it's like sending your girl friend into the Miss America Pageant without makeup or eye shadow."

There are also many football players who use steroids, although estimates of just how many vary widely and wildly. Buffalo Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas says he thinks 40% of NFL players use steroids. Other NFL players put the figure as high as 90%. That is probably on the high side—there's a tendency among athletes to assume that opponents, especially successful ones, are cheating—but it's clear that steroid use in the NFL is substantial, especially among linemen. SI interviewed 25 NFL players, only two of whom admitted to currently using steroids; one was Tampa Bay Buccaneer offensive guard Steve Courson (see page 50) and the other wouldn't allow his name to be used. Two other players, Chicago Bear linemen Steve McMichael and Jim Covert, said they had taken them for a brief period in the past. The remaining 21 players either denied using steroids or refused to comment. However, one of them, Washington Redskin offensive lineman Rick Donnalley, was quoted by The Cincinnati Post in 1982 as admitting having taken steroids (and, according to Courson, who was then a Pittsburgh Steeler teammate of Donnalley's, "got his ass chewed out" by coach Chuck Noll for talking about it). Many of the other players had suspiciously detailed knowledge of steroid trade names and "cycles" of use, and several of them were specifically identified by teammates or strength coaches as being on the drugs. Virtually all the players said that use by other players was epidemic.

There is a feeling among many athletes that steroid use is as legitimate a part of training as lifting weights and running wind sprints. Some athletes, having taken steroids themselves without visible ill effect, believe that warnings about health hazards are overstated. The people who run sports often don't seem to know what to think. For example, the NFL has a policy against steroid use except for "medical reasons," and commissioner Pete Rozelle says, "If a player is attempting to enhance performance on the field by steroids, it's wrong." But SI has interviewed several NFL team doctors, and none of them could think of a valid medical reason for giving anabolic steroids to football players. Nevertheless, the NFL has made no effort to discipline any player for taking steroids. Rozelle says he doesn't think they're widely used. Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, who for 16 years was a star guard with the Raiders, also takes a see-no-evil position and issues a string of denials. "I never knew any guys who took steroids." And: "There's no black market of steroids." Again: "I don't think steroids are a problem in the NFL."

But steroids are a problem in the NFL—and throughout sports. Apart from the fact that they do pose health hazards and that many players are obtaining them illegally, possibly exposing them to criminal elements, there's the ethical question of whether athletes should be using drugs to enhance their performances. On the subject of medical ethics generally, B.J. Anderson, the American Medical Association's associate general counsel, said last week, "The position of the physician has to be that it is unethical to provide worthless services that won't aid the health of the patient." Transposed to the world of sports, the ethical questions become clear enough. Should athletes be creatures of the laboratory? Do we want better sports through chemistry?

These questions are particularly pressing in view of the generally uncritical acceptance of anabolic steroids among NFL players. Lyle Alzado, 36, a 14-year veteran NFL defensive end formerly with Denver and Cleveland, now with the Raiders, said last week, "On some teams, between 75 and 90 percent of all athletes use steroids." Not quarterbacks or kickers, he added, but many of the others. "Steroids create more raw power, speed, endurance. Some of the oldtime players have gotten by without using them, but a player cannot compete today at a topnotch level of football without an aid of some sort," Alzado said.

And what about the USFL? Kent Hull, the center for the New Jersey Generals, said, "You can find steroids in every pro locker room. It is not a minute thing. It gets to a point where some guys, especially at the pro level, think they have to do it to make it." A New Jersey teammate, defensive end Jim Byrne, adds: "It's big in the USFL because if you don't make it here, you're thrown right out into the real world."

College football? Charles J. Radler, a former suburban Pittsburgh pizza-shop owner who became the nation's No. 1 steroid dealer (see page 56), was sent to prison in March for dealing in illicit drugs. Radler had more than 700 names on his customer list at the peak of his operation, and when asked in prison the other day how many of them were on college campuses, he replied, "The more I think about that, half had to be sent to colleges, to people on college campuses."

Recent events indicate that steroid use on campuses is prevalent indeed, in spite of denials by many college coaches in football and other sports. Last month 32 Vanderbilt football players, past and present, were listed as unindicted coconspirators in a case in Nashville involving the illegal sale and distribution of steroids. The Bears' McMichael, who admits to having used steroids after his senior year at Texas, said, "Vanderbilt is the straw that broke the camel's back. There are [players at] a bunch of other schools who are doing steroids, too. The whole college deal has gotten out of hand." Pat Donovan, 31, a Dallas Cowboy offensive lineman for nine years who retired in 1983, said, "Steroids are very, very accepted in the NFL. In my last five or six years it ran as high as 60 to 70 percent on the Cowboys on the offensive and defensive lines." Donovan said he felt sorriest for the college kids who are trying to emulate the pros. "In the pros the guys are compensated for taking the risk." Donovan added that college head coaches "know about it and encourage the abuse or they look the other way and don't counsel the kids."

Kim Wood, the Cincinnati Bengals' strength coach for the past 11 years, also considers head coaches culpable—in the pro and college ranks alike. "They pressure the strength coaches and say, 'How can we get big and strong?' " says Wood. "Strength coaches justify giving steroids to their kids this way: 'It's my job to get them good stuff, not let them go to some scumbag on the streets.' They say, 'Steroids are the individual's decision,' but somehow the drug seems to always be there."

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