Editor's Notes

Steroids are chickenshit


A friend of mine used to play defensive end for one of the big football schools, one of those places that are constantly in the top 10, win a few national championships, and send a couple of people to the NFL every year. The football players had their own dorm, far away from everyone else on campus. The mirrors in the bathrooms were stainless steel instead of glass, so they wouldn't get broken when the guys got a bit out of control.

Everybody juiced. That's what my friend told me. If you wanted to star at the national level and you thought you had a chance at the pros, you took steroids. You just did. It was part of the deal.

So I had a hard time getting agitated about the Barry Bonds scandal, and I'm still having a hard time getting agitated about the Mitchell Report. What, nobody knew there were drugs in major-league baseball? Does anyone believe the owners weren't encouraging it? Buffed-up players sell tickets.

And now there's talk of asterisks — the idea that anyone who may have used steroids shouldn't remain in the record books or in the Hall of Fame without some sort of formal indication that the milestones might be tainted — which strikes me as silly. How will we know for sure who did what when? Are we basing all of this on Mitchell Reportstyle hearsay? How about the people who may have juiced or may have just worked out harder and suddenly started performing better?

How about the fact that almost every professional athlete today has the advantage of better nutrition, better training, and better medical care than even the most lucky and privileged had 50 years ago?

Besides, steroids are chickenshit.

See, when I look out the window of my office near Mission Bay, I see this fancy new University of California complex that's going to be home to a huge, brand-new industry based on genetic technology. I'm in favor of stem-cell research, and I have no problem with using embryonic cells, but I think we need to understand what we're doing here before unregulated private and public sector researchers start doing some truly funky stuff.

Tali Woodward wrote about this in the Guardian three years ago, and plenty of others have been talking about it. It's going to be possible pretty soon (in 10 years? 20?) to alter the genetic makeup of a fetus to select for or enhance certain characteristics. Some couples may want a boy or a girl. Some may want to avoid a family history of hemophilia or heart disease.

And some may want a kid who can run really, really fast or has exceptional vision, lightning reflexes, and the strength to hit a baseball 500 feet.

Lee Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton, talked about this in 1997 in a book titled Remaking Eden (Avon Books). His thesis, in part, was that certain human beings — the "GenRich" — will be born with powers and abilities far beyond those of the weaker "Natural" class.

And which people do you suppose will play professional sports?

When there's so much money at stake and the private sector is running the game, steroids are going to seem like lemonade. That's what we should be getting agitated about.