Clemens, Pettitte, and "performance-enhancing" drugs.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 29 2008 12:14 PM

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Clemens, Pettitte, and "performance-enhancing" drugs.

Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Click image to expand.
Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte

Two weeks ago, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte admitted to using human growth hormone for three days in 2002 and 2004. "I want to apologize … to all my teammates and to all of baseball fans for the embarrassment I have caused them," Pettitte said at a press conference. "I am sorry, especially any kids that might look up to me."

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Pettitte's old pitching buddy, Roger Clemens, expressed dismay at Pettitte's confession. "When he said that he used HGH, I was shocked," Clemens told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Clemens admitted that he had received injections from the same trainer who injected Pettitte. But Clemens insisted that his own booster shots were vitamin B-12, not HGH. "My mother in 1988 suggested I take vitamin B-12," Clemens testified. "It's a good thing, it's not a bad thing."

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Set aside, for the moment, all the evidence that Clemens in fact used HGH and steroids and is now lying about it. Set aside the hypocrisy and treachery of his professed dismay that Pettitte could have stooped to the lesser of these drugs. Focus instead on the chemicals. Even if both men are telling the truth, why is Pettitte's use of HGH worse than Clemens' use of B-12? Why is one a confession and the other a defense?

The day before Clemens testified, the House committee held a hearing on HGH and B-12. The evidence showed that for professional athletes, B-12 was useless and harmless. In his opening remarks, committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said HGH was different. "This powerful drug," he warned, could cause diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

The expert testimony, however, was more circumspect. "There is no credible scientific evidence that HGH substantively increases muscle strength or aerobic exercise capacity in normal individuals," said Thomas Perls, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Todd Schlifstein, a professor at the NYU School of Medicine, testified that "when studying the performance-enhancing effects of HGH by itself, it has failed to improve performance."

The side effects, too, seemed overstated. Experts agreed that they depended on dose and duration. The most serious risks of HGH appeared to arise not from the drug per se but from contamination and ignorance of safe dosage. Waxman had pointed out that "it's actually a disease when the body produces too much HGH." But that disease, as Dr. Alan Rogol of the University of Virginia explained in his testimony, entailed muscular weakening. No athlete in his right mind would dope himself to that degree.

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