Steak, steroids, and fat football players

Science, technology, and life.
May 2 2005 1:27 PM

Let Them Eat Steak

The horrors of "natural" athletic enhancement.

Steroids bad, beef-scarfing good?
Click image to expand.
Steroids bad, beef-scarfing good?

Twenty minutes into this morning's hearing  on steroids in football, the vice chairman of the presiding committee, Rep. Chris Shays, thanks "Major League Football" for its cooperation. It's one of those moments that makes you cringe at congressional regulation of sports. Maybe Shays has never seen a pro football game. Or maybe he slept through the dozens of references to the National Football League. Or maybe he's still thinking of Major League Baseball, whose players and executives testified on this topic a month ago.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Today's atmosphere is different. The congressmen are much happier with football's steroid testing program than with baseball's. They're more vocal about steroid abuse by girls; no doubt they got complaints about their exclusive focus on boys last time. Today's witnesses are more convinced of imminent "gene doping"—enhancement through genetic engineering—than the baseball witnesses were. They also worry more about coercion: If the hulk opposite you on the line of scrimmage uses steroids, you have to do the same just to keep your job. But the central flaw in last month's hearing is just as glaring today: the thoughtless equation of performance enhancement with drugs, unnatural substances, physical harm, and cheating.

Advertisement

I hear the same buzzwords today that I heard last month: integrity, honor, fairness, principles, values. But nobody explains how these words apply to specific drugs. Shays decries our "tolerance for pharmaceutically enhanced performance." NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vows "to rid locker rooms and playing fields of performance-enhancing substances." NFL union boss Gene Upshaw declares, "There is no place for performance-enhancing substances in our American life." These men are reading from prepared statements. Do they understand what they're saying? Do they really mean no performance enhancement? No Ritalin? No beta blockers? No coffee?

Or do they mean no harmful enhancers? Steroids are clearly dangerous in big doses. But the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman, complains that "some football players are trying to cheat the [testing] system" by "carefully calibrating their dosages to stay below the detection threshold." What the test detects is testosterone. As Tagliabue explains, this is "a substance naturally appearing in the body," so the test is calibrated to identify not its mere presence, but "illicit amounts." If you're below the detection threshold, your testosterone ratio might be natural—and presumably healthy—rather than steroid-induced. If you limit your steroid dosage to stay below that threshold, how exactly is that harmful? And if it isn't harmful, how exactly is it cheating?

Then there's the problem of human growth hormone. The committee decries the lack of testing for HGH, and witnesses call the drug a threat to public health. Nobody presents a lick of evidence to back up this claim, and the same experts who warn of side effects question whether HGH really does anything for healthy adults. That seems to be the real beef against it. I've searched U.S. government and consumer protection Web sites for evidence of probable harm from HGH. No dice. The Food and Drug Administration has approved it for use in short, healthy children. The National Institutes of Health says it's "generally considered to be safe, with rare side effects" in kids. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists discounts the prevalence of side effects in adults. So in what sense is HGH, as one witness puts it, "contrary to the spirit of sports"?

The biggest difference between the baseball hearing and the football hearing is sheer size. For a batter, weight can be helpful. For an offensive lineman, it's decisive. One member of the committee asserts that two decades ago, only five NFL players weighed more than 300 pounds. Today, 350 players exceed that threshold. Some witnesses dispute the exact numbers, but nobody disputes the trend. The real debate is about what caused it. Some blame steroids. Tagliabue, Upshaw, and NFL medical adviser John Lombardo attribute it to other factors. And it's the other factors, not the steroids, that raise the creepiest questions about distorting the human body.

According to Tagliabue, Upshaw, and Lombardo, changes in football rules and strategy have made weight far more crucial than it used to be. Blocking has become sumo wrestling. Offensive linemen are selected for their bulk; therefore, defensive linemen are selected the same way. If steroids were to blame, these guys would be spectacularly muscular. They aren't. Many have 25 to 30 percent body fat, says Lombardo. I think of Leon Lett, the former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman who was picked late in the draft but ended up making the roster, reportedly because the team kept feeding him steak and he kept putting on weight. But nowadays, according to Lombardo, players don't balloon past 300 pounds in the NFL. They already weigh that much in college.

Harold Henderson, the NFL's vice president for labor relations, tells the committee that in each year of high school, his son gained 13 pounds for football season and then lost it for wrestling season. On his college football team, at a steady height of 5 feet 8 inches, the young man went from 152 pounds to 165 to 180 to more than 200. Henderson proudly reports that his son did this without taking a "substance." It was all diet and weight training, he says. Tagliabue calls this an exemplary case of "perfectly clean" self-improvement.

This is what happens when you equate unnatural performance enhancement with drugs. You end up thinking that a kid who puts 33 percent more weight on the same frame is okay because he's "clean," and a sport that offers millions of dollars to guys carrying 90 pounds of fat is exonerated. You end up asking Waxman's question about the NFL's weight explosion: "Is this just a natural phenomenon, or is this the use of drugs?" Maybe it's neither. And maybe that's the problem.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.