When President George W. Bush, during his 2004 State of the Union Address, mentioned the need for competitive sport to free itself of supposedly performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, sports journalists joined in, arguing that if an American president takes this time to encourage sporting organizations to clean up their collective act, then surely a serious problem must exist. But what, precisely, is the problem?
Yes, abuse involving performance drugs really does exist, but policymakers and sports journalists, in condemning sporting organizations for failing to eliminate drugs, have missed a key point amid the demagoguery and appeals to morality. By focusing almost exclusively on whether winners or superstars have used drugs to enhance performance, even though many have never failed a drug test, sports reporters have missed an excellent opportunity to inform audiences (that might be tempted to copycat) about anabolic steroids and how these substances stand to affect young amateur athletes still in school.
In other words, while reporting any possible transgressions of those already in the public eye, journalists may be missing the opportunity to use them as role models-a function that shouldn't adversely affect media efforts to attract more readers, viewers and listeners.
Anabolic steroids are used by some athletes to enhance performance, but we seldom hear of why these drugs exist, how they actually work, and why they can have negative effects other than giving some competitors an unfair advantage. Steroids were developed to help prisoners of war and others whose skeletal bodies were on the verge of shutting down entirely, and have been used in the treatment of anemia and in some AIDS patients, in cases of muscle deterioration. As virtually anyone who follows the news realizes, athletes now sometimes use steroids to bulk up, increase speed and strength, and recuperate quicker from intense workouts.
When the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 passed Congress, steroids became a Schedule III controlled substance, a classification reserved for drugs with limited medicinal use, and available only with a doctor's prescription. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, which expands the 1990 legislation to ban chemical precursors of steroids and increase penalties for those who sell certain drugs within set distances of sports facilities.
Those who formulate public policy intended to curb illicit drug use nearly always mention the need to protect young people from harmful substances. Ironically, with anabolic steroids, the drugs themselves are often less harmful than the bogus substances sold to na've adolescents under the name of "steroids." In recent years the Internet has replaced word-of-mouth and the "guy at the gym with a connection" but, fundamentally, the steroid market operates just as its counterpart in narcotics does; that is, buyers place a certain amount of trust in distributors, and if they get scammed, buyers must simply grit their teeth and try again elsewhere.
As an example, adolescents who experiment with anabolic steroids typically do so with daily tablets or by having a friend inject them with a weekly dose of synthetic testosterone. But in the case of tablets secured from the Internet or a "friendly" connection, young people may get substitutes such as generic aspirin, sugar pills or possibly something toxic, as it takes very little for a creative individual to make a bottle of pills look "real."
With injections, the potential for toxicity is certainly a problem, but an equally worrisome concern is the use of syringes by young people without any medical training. Although rare, documented cases of bodybuilders contracting HIV from shared syringes do exist, and more common are ugly knots and scars from injection spots becoming infected and hardening after repeated injections.
Moreover, adolescents who use steroids do not understand the dosages that medical professionals consider appropriate for treating legitimate illnesses, and their "cold turkey" exit strategy-using copious amounts of the drugs until the bottle runs out or the vial runs dry-may trigger side effects such as gynecomastia, the development of breast tissue in men, or severe depression. With large amounts of synthetic testosterone entering the body, its own production of the hormone may become more variable, and when drug dosages are not increased and decreased incrementally, potentially costly and dangerous side effects, including rapid mood changes and testicular atrophy, kick in. In women, side effects may include clitoral enlargement, menstruation problems, deepening of the voice and even beard growth. Yet, both male and female adolescents appear willing to experiment with the likes of anabolic steroids because such side effects are only "possible" and not definite.
Thus, in terms of journalists making meaningful impacts with their reporting on the use of anabolic steroids, one of the most helpful questions they might ask a superstar athlete is not whether he or she uses drugs to enhance performance and break records. It is unlikely that such a question will ever get a straight, affirmative answer. But reporters usually know more about subjects than do typical readers or viewers. Why not make use of this knowledge by asking, "Given the amount of fake, and potentially toxic, anabolic steroids in circulation, would you agree to do a public service announcement in which you encourage young people to steer clear of underground drugs, explaining how such drugs not only could fail to build muscle, but also cause serious health problems and might send them to jail?" People have gone to prison for dealing in anabolic steroids, just as they have for dealing in "recreational" drugs.
If members of the press approached superstar athletes, or their agents, in ways that did not imply wrongdoing or moral failure, and instead advanced a request for a PSA, and the PSAs are made, young people might listen when such an announcement appeared on television, and some might change their behavior. Every little bit helps.
As it stands, press coverage of drugs in sports focuses largely on elite athletes and the leagues in which they play. Journalists have succeeded in helping to trigger the enactment of league policies but, unfortunately, such policies are merely the work of those who understand how to preserve the perceived "sanctity" of sport and at the same time, preserve the capacity of elite athletes to perform the spectacular, which, in some cases, requires the use of chemical substances. A genuine opportunity exists here for journalists willing to set aside their focus on the superstars and purported moral failures, and concentrate more on the na've adolescents who idolize such stars.
*Bryan E. Denham, Ph.D., is Charles Campbell Associate Professor of Sports Communication in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson Univ. His articles addressing press coverage of drugs in sports have appeared in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Sociology of Sport Journal, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, and Culture, Sport, Society.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp. 8,31-32.