May 7, 2009 -- Today, Major League Baseball suspended the Los Angeles Dodgers' star slugger Manny Ramirez for 50 games for violating the league's drug prevention and treatment policy.
Ramirez waived his right to challenge that suspension and issued the following statement through the Players Association.
"Recently I saw a physician for a personal health issue. He gave me a medication, not a steroid, which he thought was okay to give me. Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy… L.A. is a special place to me and I know everybody is disappointed. So am I. I'm sorry about this whole situation."
Steroids Claims: Fact or Fiction?
Experts like Dr. Gary Wadler at the World Anti-Doping Agency have testified before Congress, saying steroids pose a serious problem because the "threat is dying, the threat is suicide." And at a congressional hearing in March 2005 Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called steroid use "a serious public health problem."
That's what we're often told by the media, too, in stories warning about "'roid rage" and supposed deaths by steroids. CNN's Nancy Grace once said steroids cause an "almost superhuman rage." But University of Wisconsin bioethicist Norman Fost says "the horror stories about the medical claims, some of them are just frankly made up."
Yet steroids have been blamed for professional wrestler Chris Benoit killing himself and his family and NFL legend Lyle Alzado's fatal brain tumor. Fost says it's all nonsense, and that there is actually no documented correlation between steroid use and brain tumors.
Surprisingly, Wadler admits that's true. And he's not even certain about other claims like the steroids causing strokes.
"I certainly think it's on a possible list, if not the probable list," he says.
And what about the claim that steroids cause heart attacks?
"I believe the likelihood of anabolic steroid abuse being associated with heart disease is real," says Wadler.
Wadler has to use words like "possible" and "I believe" because, unlike the well-documented relationship between smoking and lung cancer, there are no long-term epidemiological studies that show steroids cause those diseases.
It's not that steroids are perfectly safe, but neither are your everyday over-the-counter medications. Advil, for example, is associated with ulcers, asthma, blisters and shock. It seems as if every drug has some side effects.
Steroids: Risks vs. Benefits
"That's right," Wadler agrees. "And we have to make a decision as to what the risks versus benefits are."
Then why single out steroids? People take unnecessary risks all the time: smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, eating fatty foods, even engaging in extreme sports.
"We don't stop people from eating lemon meringue pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner," says Fost. "People everywhere take enormous risks way greater than even the hyped-up risks of steroids."
In many American gyms, you can easily find oversize people like bodybuilders George Smalley, owner of BodiesbyMrG.com, and John Romano, co-founder of RXmuscle.com. They freely admit they've taken steroids and are well aware of the known side effects such as hair loss, acne or the growing of male breasts.
Romano says, "Every adult should be able to do whatever they want, as long as they're not hurting anybody else."
Fost says those known side effects would be minimized if steroids were legal.
"If athletes are going to use these things, it would be better to have them on the table, where informed doctors can help them get the right drug with the right dose and fewer side effects," he says.
"No. I don't think you supervise the abuse of a drug," Wadler counters. "And I know there are people out there who strongly feel that I am misguided. I strongly disagree with them."
Then if steroids are such a major threat in Wadler's mind, there must be lots of high-profile heart attacks and steroids. Wadler wouldn't cite any.
"I don't have that information at my fingertips," he says. The reality is that, despite all the hysteria surrounding a few high-profile deaths, there is little evidence to support the connection to steroids.
So what about the Chris Benoit "'roid rage" killings? The medical examiner later said there was no evidence that the testosterone he was taking caused the crime. There's evidence that steroids can increase aggression in some people, but Fost says: "There are millions and millions of American males who have been on steroids and not too many of them have ever gone out and killed somebody."
Using Steroids: Cheating?
"The overwhelming examples of criminal behavior by professional athletes has nothing to do with steroids," he continues.
But even if the medical dangers are overstated, steroid use still feels like cheating, right?
"I don't know why you would think this is cheating any more than the hundreds of other things athletes do to enhance their performance," says Fost, referring to things like Tiger Woods improving his vision to 20/15 with Lasik eye surgery, professional bikers sleeping in hyperbaric chambers or swimmer Janet Evans attributing her Olympic Gold Medal to a special greasy swimsuit.
"Sport is nothing more than an activity governed by rules," replied Wadler. "Rules which are totally arbitrary ... And if you don't want to play by those rules, don't play."
If professional sports leagues want to restrict what substances their players can or cannot take, they have every right to do so. But why is Congress even getting involved?
"This is part of our duty to protect the American people," says Cummings. "The fact is that we're doing this to help out children."
Nobody wants steroids to be available to kids. But why can't their use just be restricted to adults, like alcohol and cigarettes?
"The real argument is that there are so much more dangerous substances out there that kids are abusing -- alcohol, drugs, tobacco, aerosols, paint, glue," says Romano. "Why aren't we, as a nation, as a society, focusing on the more dangerous things and putting less focus on esoteric things like big arms?"