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Steroids: A Problem Of Huge Dimensions

May 13, 1985
May 13, 1985

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May 13, 1985

Kentucky Derby
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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

By William Oscar Johnson

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.

This is an article from the May 13, 1985 issue Original Layout

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."

Finally, steroid use also appears to be rapidly increasing among high school athletes. Wood, who's particularly outspoken on the dangers of steroids—he believes that the Bengals are relatively clean—says this sorry development is fueled not only by visions of future collegiate and professional athletic glory but also by growing reliance on steroids as a way of dealing with the self-doubts of young boys about their masculinity. "Unfortunately, this is the kind of problem that most teenagers have, so they can be easily exploited," Wood says. "Steroids have become the thing for kids to do. In the last few years they have become very big in high school."

Just how far and wide has the steroid culture now spread? Richard Sandlin, 27, a former strength consultant at Alabama who has a master's degree in exercise physiology and computer science and is a world-ranked powerlifter, acknowledged that he is a former steroid user and said that he has served as a kind of consultant over the past six years to players, coaches and others interested in getting the lowdown on steroids. Sandlin, who lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and has a company that produces medical software for nutrition and fitness programs, says of his callers, "They want to know what type of cycles to go on and how long to stay on the cycle. And they want to know basically what drugs to use, what drugs are harmful, what combinations are harmful, what combinations are best." Sandlin said his answers included accounts of "what happened to me and what could happen to them. I personally have reaped a lot of kidney and liver problems [from steroids]."

Sandlin said that those who have approached him for information include a variety of coaches or athletes, apparently acting on their own, from LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Texas, USC, Washington, Washington State, California, Arizona State, Nebraska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, SMU, Pitt, Virginia, Clemson, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisville, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Florida and Florida State. He said he, has also given advice to at least 40 steroid users or would-be users on NFL and USFL teams, including the New York Giants and Jets, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Raiders, New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Portland Breakers and Houston Gamblers.

The NFL says it doesn't know which, if any, of its teams test players for steroid use. About 20 colleges do, even though the NCAA has no rules prohibiting such use. But Tony Daly, the medical director for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, said it would cost a minimum of $750,000 to set up an effective testing facility and added that the facility at UCLA used to test athletes at the 1984 Summer Games is the only internationally accredited lab in the U.S. He said, "If you're not using a sophisticated lab, an athlete could use steroids up to 10 days before the test and still have the effects, but his concentrations would be low enough that he would be able to pass the test." The NCAA's Special Committee on National Drug Testing Policy is scheduled to meet on May 16 to formulate a national testing policy. In the meantime, most of the schools now testing for steroids do so at local hospitals, and Eric Zemper, the NCAA staff liaison to the committee, admits, "Those places just aren't prepared to test for steroids."

For young athletes the question of whether or not to use steroids is inescapable. More than ever before, their answer is likely to be yes. As Courson, who says he spends "a couple grand a year" on steroids, put it, "I think everybody faces the question: Do I want to go on [them]? It happens to everybody at some point in their career. At every level. It's like you're cheating when you use drugs, but then again, everyone else is cheating, too. We'd all be better off if steroids weren't around—everyone would be better off."

But they are around, and have been since 1935, when Charles Kochakian, now an endocrinologist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, synthesized an anabolic steroid. Anabolic steroids are various synthetic derivatives of testosterone, a male hormone. The drug has been used over the years to stimulate a buildup of the body by synthesizing protein for muscle growth and tissue repair. It is used primarily for those recovering from major surgery or those with chronic debilitating diseases. Today there are numerous anabolic agents, three of the most commonly used being Anadrol, Deca-Durabolin and Anavar. There is also a substance called growth hormone, which is extracted from the pituitary glands of human cadavers and is now also available in synthetic form. Physicians use growth hormone for individuals who are not growing at a normal rate. Consumption of growth hormone in excessive amounts has been known to cause the development of overly large hands, feet and skulls.

The medical profession is still not in total agreement about whether or how much steroids improve athletic performance, even though many athletes believe that they gain the extra strength that enables them to perform better. The risks inherent in the administration of steroids include liver and kidney disorders, hypertension, decreased sperm count, aggressive behavior and impotence in men, and menstrual irregularities and masculinization in women. Some of the side effects are believed by medical experts to be irreversible.

There are also psychological side effects from steroid usage. Steroids are sometimes addictive, producing a sense of supersized manhood that can only be maintained through continuing or increased usage. Scott Genslinger, 28, is a bodybuilder from Pennsylvania who in October 1981 carried 127 pounds on a 5'10" frame. By July 1983 he weighed 226. He was one of Radler's customers: At one point he was consuming growth hormone every day, plus a mix of other drugs. "I spent my savings on it, thousands of dollars," he said. "It was an addiction. The way doctors described it to me, it was similar to anorexia nervosa—except you have an obsession with being big instead of being skinny. When I was off steroids, I was afraid to step on a scale for fear I might have lost weight. If I missed a meal, I went totally nuts. It ruined my day." His wife, Kathy, said, "I'm so tired of him asking me, 'Do I look big? Do I look small?' It's annoying."

Insidious as it is, the steroid business has never been better. Much of the stuff is produced in the U.S., but some comes from Mexico, East Germany and England and is either smuggled in or imported legally through customs. There are also many small generic drug manufacturers in the U.S. that have sprung up in the past few years and are eager to feed the growing market. In most states it is a misdemeanor to distribute prescription drugs without a license. State enforcement is often lax. To obtain a license, Radler needed only to fill out a Pennsylvania Department of Health application, be visited by an inspector and pay a $100 fee. Then he could buy all the nonclassified prescription drugs that he wanted. Greg Nescott, the Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney, whose office is in Pittsburgh and who prosecuted Radler, said, "Nobody has taken steroids seriously because it's not heroin and it's not cocaine. It's clear now that these things can be dangerous drugs."

One sign that authorities may finally be taking steroids seriously is an unprecedented joint investigation into steroid trafficking now being conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the Justice Department. Another sign is the case in San Diego that resulted in a guilty plea last February by Tony Fitton, who for the past decade was one of the top dealers in the U.S. Fitton was arrested on Nov. 12, 1984 at a border crossing between Mexico and California carrying 2,040 boxes of Dianabol and other steroids in a rented car. Fitton failed to appear for sentencing and is a fugitive. "He may have been the biggest dealer in the world," said Phil Halpern, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. "Fitton deals at the highest level. His major customers were gym owners, fitness centers, trainers and colleges."

Fitton went to all the major powerlifting championships and drummed up trade in steroids and other drugs. Radler told federal investigators: 'if there's a meet, and Tony's at it, you can count on it that he's got a couple of suitcases full of drugs there that he's going to sell off at that place.... He always has a room.... They have a long line out in the hall of all the lifters, you know, two pounds overweight still...and they got to shoot them all up with Lasix [a diuretic], blow their water off, and they make weight."

Now if only sports administrators and coaches would get as serious about the situation as the FDA and Justice Department appear to be. "I feel confident that steroids are not being dispensed to any heavy degree by the clubs," the NFL's Rozelle insisted last week. "But you can't stop someone from getting them on the outside. We tell them, first, it's debatable as to whether or not it improves your performance and, second, we tell them about potential side effects. I don't think steroid use is that big—with the clubs not dispensing steroids and with athletes not being overly prone to buy it if they have to pay for it." In much the same vein, the NFLPA president, Tom Condon, an offensive guard for the Kansas City Chiefs, said, "Steroids might be a problem in colleges. They might be a problem in track and field. But they're a non-factor in professional football. I've never seen anybody take anything. I don't know about them."

Maybe it's high time that the people who run sports take a closer look.

PHOTOPHOTOANDY HAYTAccording to Alzado (77), steroids have long been a fact of life around the NFL.PHOTOCARYN LEVYBy prescription or on the black market, the supply of steroids is meeting the demand.PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINThe Bears' McMichael (76) says he took steroids after his final season at Texas.PHOTOCARYN LEVYSandlin says he's a former user who still gets calls for advice.PHOTOLANE STEWARTGenslinger (with his wife, Kathy) has had the steroid highs and lows.PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe Bengals' Wood says high schools are affected, too.PHOTOANDY HAYTOne of the nation's biggest dealers, Fitton is wanted by the Feds, who have a lot of drugs they confiscated from him.PHOTO[See caption above.]