America Loves Steroids

by John Romano

The True Story of Anabolic Usage in the US

Despite the draconian laws and the alleged health risks, steroid use continues to rise in America. But here's what you don't know.

Just Say No. Well, Maybe.

Every sports federation on earth has banned steroid use. In the U.S., there are federal and state laws against their importation, manufacturing, sale, and distribution, with penalties as high as 30 years in prison. Despite all that, the use of anabolic steroids is still on the rise.

This growth in their use isn’t just limited to elite athletes who consider these drugs just as vital to their performance enhancement as protein and omega-3’s, but also among a rather broad swath of our culture. Amateur athletes have embraced them, as well as the regular gym dude who just wants to look good. Aging men covet them to fight off the effects of aging and teens use them to bolster up self esteem, despite all society has done to expose their alleged evils.

Clearly, statistics show that we’re increasingly not just saying “no” to these drugs.

As American as Apple Pie

In his 1993 book, “Anabolic Steroids In Sport And Exercise,” Dr. Charles Yesalis, professor of health and human development at Penn State University and a renowned expert on steroids, speculated that 1.2 million American adults purportedly used steroids.

I suspect that the number has mushroomed to somewhere between 12 and 15 million. As evidence, consider how big a role the internet has played with its gigantic network of forums and discussion boards covering every drug.

Look too at the ever-expanding network of domestic underground labs; the proliferation of anti-aging clinics and doctors willing to prescribe testosterone to treat low T in men; the growth in population, the role of social media, and the millions who follow outrageous drug user/celebrities and noted steroid gurus all over cyberspace and you might think my number conservative.

The prevailing attitude regarding the legality of steroids among the bodybuilderatti is of course as blasé as a 70’s rocker lighting up a joint at an AC/DC concert, but familiarity of steroids has gone far beyond that. They’ve become a household word and infiltrated American culture to the degree that the description “on steroids” is now permanently etched in the lexicon. It’s used to soup-up many a mainstream advertising campaign and even to describe fierce tropical storms.

Greg Valentino said it best in the “Bigger Stronger Faster” documentary: “Steroids are as American as apple pie.”

A Law That Failed Miserably

Naturally, there was also a concomitantly evolving force intent on eradicating the “problem.” The Steroid Control Act of 1990 not only criminalized the importation, possession, sale, and distribution of steroids, but in an unprecedented display of sheer congressional hubris, also added naturally occurring testosterone and its derivatives to schedule 3 (III) of the DEA’s list of controlled substances. That put them in the same class of narcotics as ketamine and Valium.

The law was intended to snare cheating athletes, but it failed miserably. To this very day, other than the odd band of codefendants that goes down with the latest underground lab bust, the only individuals arrested and prosecuted under this law are everyday guys training hard in the gym who just wanted a little more out of their workouts or to look good at the beach.

Things got more absurd when the law was modified in 2004 to include prohormones and basically anything that’s even “steroid-like.” Two separate US Sentencing Commissions decreed that any elite athlete would be looking at three to five years in prison if the steroid-like shit ever hit the fan.

But the government isn’t the only one shaking a finger at steroid users. The lay press and the lay public have accused steroids of being the force behind practically any crime you can think of.

The Death of an All-American Boy

No segment of the population gets hit with the anti-steroid push as hard as teens, and rightly so. We can all agree that teen boys and girls shouldn’t use steroids, but not because of the litany of horrendous medical maladies they purportedly cause. Instead, it’s because the risk of affecting their still-developing endocrine systems, no matter how small, is too great to take.

Regardless, consider the sad tale of the suicide death of 17 year-old, all-American boy next door, Taylor Hooton. Hooton was made famous by his father, Don, who blamed his son’s suicide on nandrolone. Young Taylor stopped taking the drug cold turkey, developed depression, and committed suicide, prompting his dad to go on an outrage campaign.

Don actually appeared before Congress during the baseball steroid scandal to give his own contrived testimony on how steroids killed his son and how it was baseball’s fault. That got him enough attention and sympathy money (like the million bucks he got from Bud Selig) to start a foundation in his son’s name, with the purpose of educating kids on the dangers of steroids.

The result was an online and in-person campaign that was a mixture of John Walsh, Nancy Grace and Reefer Madness.

The ludicrous campaign had many “highlights,” including a stint where Hooton was allowed to interrupt major league baseball games – where 90% of the adults in attendance are half crocked on beer – to publicly refer to steroids as “junk,” similar to heroin, that needs to come off the streets.

Hooton even went as far as to post on his website that actor Tom Hanks – because it was publicized that he had been given an anti-inflammatory cortisone shot for an injury he had sustained – was “high on steroids” during a live performance on Broadway.

Other than making a highly-paid ass of himself in his son’s name (Hooton paid himself well to travel around the country and lie to kids), the only thing he accomplished was putting together a farce that associated steroids to death and destruction that was as ludicrous as it was transparent.

Anyone, including kids, could see right trough it.

What Really Did Young Hooton In

Luckily, the medical community dissected this case down to the granular level and debunked Hooton’s argument against steroids completely. With a family history of depression (mother) and attempted suicide (sister), the likely culprit in young Hooton’s suicide was his prescription for Lexapro, an anti-depressant known to cause suicidal ideation in adolescent patients.

The cessation of a minor cycle of a mild steroid (that was probably fake in the first place) most certainly had nothing to do with it. And when you consider that there hasn’t been another reported case of “steroid suicide” and you have to conclude that either Hooton’s wily anti-steroid mission bore fruit, or teen steroid suicide rates have just dropped back to the level they were at before the Hooton case: zero.

Grossly Exaggerated Dangers

Nevertheless, the Hooton model of steroid madness found a warm and cozy home with the media. The “in the face of other far more likely culprits, blame steroids” mantra took hold and, for a while, had the media drive itself into a near frenzy over steroids. All based on bullshit.

But smart people saw right through it. What they saw was the fastest men and women in the world, the Bash Brothers, the epic home run race, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong, all testament to the fact that raw talent mixed with good drugs make for some incredible sports entertainment, with none of the casualties the media had assured us of.

Generally speaking, when you throw so much dirt on something, it’s because you really do have something to hide. What became obvious was that the dangers of steroids were grossly misconstrued, exaggerated, and over reported.

The truth is that steroids aren’t as dangerous as they were made out to be and that the real gains in athletic performance and improvements in body composition outweigh the highly contrived downside.

It’s the ultimate irony: in their quest to warn off potential steroid users, they ultimately attracted more users. Much to the steroid opponents’ chagrin, the number of teen users doubled from 2012 to 2013 (the last year this data was available). This was a point in time when the Taylor Hooton Foundation was well into its upswing and Don was getting awards for his efforts from institutions such as the Dallas Morning News.

A new study released by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids not only confirms that steroid use among teens had doubled, but it also shows that one in five teens knows at least one friend who uses steroids and another one in five teens believes it would be easy for them to obtain steroids.

This is a rather telling indication of the steroid trajectory, considering that in 2009 only five percent of teens were using steroids or growth hormone. And it’s not just among teens that steroid use is on the rise.

Look at the Scales

College football has a near-zero rate of positive steroid tests. The NCAA attributes the decline in positive tests to its year-round drug-testing program, combined with anti-drug education and testing conducted by schools. Never mind the drug policy has enough loopholes to make a block of aged Swiss cheese look solid in comparison, we’re supposed to believe that passing the test means you’re clean?

Who could even entertain such a thought after the Lance Armstrong affair? Armstrong, despite being tested over 500 times, never failed a drug test.

But never mind all that. The Associated Press recently announced that – based on dozens of interviews with college players, testers, dealers, and experts, as well as an analysis of weight records for more than 61,000 players – the sport’s near-zero rate of positive steroids tests isn’t an accurate gauge of steroid use among college athletes.

Damn straight. What they need to do is look at the scales. College ballers are bigger than ever, many over 300 pounds.

Wouldn’t just the obvious extreme weight gained by these players indicate that something is in the university’s oatmeal? According to Dan Benardot, director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance, adding more than 20 or 25 pounds of lean muscle in a year is nearly impossible through diet and exercise alone. Yet, the AP found more than 4,700 players gained more than 20 pounds overall in a single year.

The AP found that it was common for the athletes to gain 10-20 pounds or more in their first year under a rigorous regimen of weightlifting and diet. Others gained 35 or 40 pounds in a season. In roughly 100 cases, players packed on as much as 80 pounds in a single year. In at least 11 instances, players that the AP identified as packing on significant weight in college went on to fail NFL drug tests.

Yet, according to Mary Wilfert, the NCAA’s associate director of health and safety, the NCAA has never studied weight gain or considered it in regard to its steroid testing policies. She would not speculate on the cause of such rapid weight gain. (I’ll give you a hint, it’s the steroids!)

Cops and Soldiers are Supposed to be Bad Ass!

It’s no surprise that recent reports show active duty soldiers are using steroids and the numbers are rising. Concomitantly, more police officers are reportedly using steroids. These are two servants of our society that absolutely, positively should use steroids.

A society at war with fanatical extremists, murderous thugs, or throngs of violent protestors should want those who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way – for the rest of us – to have every edge they could possibly have.

I’m pretty sure that the number of cops I’m coaching isn’t unique to me. I know more than a couple of gurus who tell me the same thing. Some are actually coaching soldiers getting ready to deploy. If there’s a will there’s a way. Cops and soldiers are supposed to be bad ass.

Not Lethal and Here to Stay

Through all the steroid scandals and failed drug tests the years have brought us, we’ve learned that our assumptions were indeed correct – the only athletes not doing steroids are those at the back of the pack.

And let’s not forget the enlightened masses of aging men that find better health, vitality, and a rocking six pack with the help of a little testosterone and deca once a week. The genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going back in. In fact, that genie’s busy spreading the word.

But the “problem” isn’t the drugs. While there’s no such thing as a perfectly safe drug and, naturally, the abuse of steroids carries its own unique health risks, the reality is that we don’t have the dead bodies with a legitimate “death-caused-by-steroid” stamp on them to make anyone run for the hills.

Categorically, steroids – on their own – aren’t lethal. In fact, their dangers are pretty tame and very manageable and most of the side effects associated with them attenuate when the drugs are stopped.

No, the real problem is the laws against steroids. It’s a statistically provable fact that the greatest risk you take when using steroids is not to your health, but to your freedom. But regardless of the steep penalties, more and more of us are using steroids. That alone tells us how strong the appeal is.