By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

Let's be honest: The thought of Barry Bonds' taking a women's infertility drug is a wee bit disconcerting.

And the notion of his ingesting a steroid used to boost muscle mass in cattle? Flat-out gross.

Barry Bonds
AP Photo/Khampha Bouaphanh
Bonds is the poster child for the MLB Steroid era.

(Look, I'm not a biologist, but what happens if the guy gets pregnant? Does he lactate buttermilk?)

Still, in the wake of the latest steroid allegations surrounding the San Francisco Giants' slugger, one thing strikes me as particularly shocking.

I find myself agreeing with -- gack -- Bode Miller.

Back up a few months. Before Miller decided that fat, drunk and stupid was a perfectly good way to go through the Olympics, skiing's self-styled corporate bad boy declared that sports doping should be permitted, and that banning performance-enhancing drugs does little to level the playing field or protect the health of athletes.

"I don't think it's a really big deal," Miller said of steroid use. "I think people should be able to do what they want to do."

Was Miller being sincere? Or were his words simply another salvo in his ill-fated, Nike-backed, I'm-such-an-iconoclast marketing campaign?

Hard to say. The messenger seems like a dope. But the message? The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced it has merit.

Really, why not let athletes juice?

Look, I'm not claiming that creating leagues of extraordinary gentleman whose shrunken testicles also happen to glow in the dark is a great idea. Nor am I insinuating that the reasons for barring steroids in sports are baseless.

(I'll leave both of those to Jose Canseco's next book. Dear Congress: please don't subpoena me during your next round of grandstanding. KTHNXBYE!)

No, all I'm saying is that for every argument against drug use, there's an equally reasonable argument for allowing it -- and that when it comes to steroid prohibition, the cure might be worse than the disease.

Why should Bonds and Co. be permitted to poke, prod and otherwise juice their bodies in the manner of experimental livestock? Consider the following:

Testing Flunks Out
The lab coats try. They really do. The NFL spends $10 million annually on its drug program, the toughest in pro sports. The International Olympic Committee reportedly administered 1,200 doping tests at the Torino Games, a 72 percent increase over Salt Lake City.

While working for Merrill Lynch, American shot putter Adam Nelson once had to cut short a client meeting when urine collectors demanded he provide a random sample. Right then and there.

So what do sports organizations get for their vigilance, for forcing dignity-stripped athletes to stop, drop and aim for the plastic cup?

A few years ago, I put those questions to Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University epidemiologist and one of the world's leading experts on drugs in sports.

His response was less than inspiring.

Testing only catches the stupid and the careless. The low-hanging fruit.
"When the Mark McGwire [androstenedione] scandal broke, I said one thing you could do is have all these sports federations pool $100 million each and give it to chemists around the world, give them five years and see what research does to close loopholes," Yesalis said. "Frankly, I wouldn't bet my house on that. With every loophole that closes up, one opens."

When it comes to juicing, the cat-and-mouse game between testers and cheaters is more like Tom and Jerry. The rodent usually wins. Screening for testosterone isn't foolproof. A reliable test for Human Growth Hormone -- one of the performance-enhancers Bonds allegedly used -- has yet to be developed. And clever chemistry can disguise doping.

Take THG, the steroid at the heart of the BALCO scandal (and also allegedly used by Bonds). Sprinter Kelli White reportedly passed tests while using the drug. Why? It was designed to be undetectable.

In fact, testers only got wise when disgruntled track coach Trevor Graham slipped them a sample of THG -- in a used syringe, reportedly -- and told them to look for it.

Examine some of the biggest doping busts of the last decade, and a similar pattern emerges. State and federal investigators nabbed a South Carolina doctor who filled illegal steroid prescriptions for three members of the Carolina Panthers; in 1998, customs officials at the French- Belgian border uncovered the biggest drug scandal in Tour de France history.

Likewise, chemists didn't dig up the latest allegations about Bonds. Dogged cops and reporters did.

"What would work? Aggressive, undercover police sting operations," Yesalis said. "I'm talking handcuffs. Put it on 'Cops.' But are you willing to do that against Penn State, USC, the Baltimore Ravens, the L.A. Lakers, on a sustained basis?"

Drug testing as we know it isn't totally futile. It snares little fish like Matt Lawton and big, clumsy ones such as Rafael Palmeiro. That said, a system that regularly busts the smartest, most sophisticated cheaters likely would be akin to enforcing the speed limit by having police cars stationed at every intersection: costly, invasive and hardly worth the trouble.

As such, why bother?

Competitive Integrity Is Relative.
The major argument against steroid use goes something like this: Drugs destroy competitive integrity by giving users a leg up on nonusers, thereby creating a nonlevel playing field.

Of course, our playing fields are hardly level to begin with.

Purists howl about Bonds' alleged drug use. No one says a word about his padded arm protector, a plate-crowding advantage that other hitters don't enjoy. Babe Ruth smacked 714 home runs without having to face African-American pitchers. The New York Yankees can afford more talent than the Kansas City Royals. Team Germany has better bobsled gear than Team Jamaica.

Duke basketball players get to learn from hoops savant Mike Krzyzewski, a man with his own AmEx commercial. Until his resignation last week, Duquesne players were stuck with Danny Nee, who led the team to the worst season in school history.

Should Coach K be banned, just to make things more fair?

Some say steroids are a distasteful shortcut. Not so.

They actually allow athletes to work harder and more effectively, much like a good strength coach. Others claim performance-enhancers are unnatural, which in turn raises a question: What is natural, exactly?

Is it Tiger Woods, having a Lasik operation? Pitchers throwing harder after Tommy John surgery?

Players wearing tinted contact lenses?

The banned substance EPO boosts endurance by stimulating the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. So does altitude training, which is why American speedskaters reportedly prepare for international competition by sleeping in oxygen-deprived rooms. Does the latter have more integrity than the former?

Jacob Sullum, the author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use" isn't so sure. Neither am I.

"Everybody ought to be able to use the same tools," Sullum said. "But I don't see what is different in principle between steroids and anything else artificial we do to change our abilities, be it working out, diet, the various medicines people take to recover from injuries."

To put things another way: Pam Anderson is an entertainer, same as Bonds. She has patently fake breasts, bouncy, silicone-filled bags that have given her an undeniable competitive advantage over her unenhanced wannabe starlet peers.

Oddly enough, no one is demanding an asterisk be placed next to her Playmate of the Year award.

The Risks are Unknown
With the possible exception of Canseco, nobody says performance-enhancing drugs are good for your health.

But that doesn't mean they're going to kill you, either.

First and foremost, steroids aren't evil. They're medical drugs, used to treat ailments such as a body wasting away from AIDS. And like most drugs, they have side effects.

In the short term, 'roids can cause acne. They've been linked to mood swings, heart disease and liver damage. They also can shrink the testicles. Yikes.

Beyond that, Yesalis told me, medical scientists simply don't understand the long-term effects of juicing. Lyle Alzado didn't die of 'roid rage. He died of brain lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. Can steroids be used safely? Or with an acceptable level of danger?

Maybe not. But no one knows for sure. Meanwhile, one thing seems clear: ban drugs, and athletes will continue to use them; allow drugs, and those same athletes will at least be able to juice under some sort of medical supervision.

Ask yourself: better to follow a 'roid regime designed by the shady likes of Greg Anderson? Or one put together by the Mayo Clinic?

"If you could regulate and control steroid use, maybe that would be the answer to some of the problems,"said Dr. Robert Ruhling, director of the George Mason University human performance laboratory. "But you would need some sort of medical review panel, since there are such things as unethical doctors."

True enough. Malpractice would be a risk. So would health problems. But remember: Elite athletes are willing put themselves in harm's way all the time and are allowed to do so. Boxers get punched in the head. Football linemen beef up to steer-like proportions, never mind the strain on their hearts and joints. Downhill skiers risk broken bones and worse.

In everyday life, potentially addictive prescription painkillers are a big deal; in sports, they're de rigueur.

"I'm in my 60s, and I've had three concussions," said Ruhling, a former college tennis player. "Each time, I was told to not do anything for six to eight weeks. Well, sometimes those quarterbacks get thrown back in the next week."

The Kids Will Be Alright
Athletes are role models. If they use steroids, our children will follow suit. Or so we're told.

Doug Abrams has doubts. A youth hockey coach and expert panelist at the University of Rhode Island's Center for Sports Parenting, he says teens juice for the same reason adults do.

Because it works.

"They want the same performance-enhancing effect," said Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri. "A chance to get a college athletic scholarship."

Looking to point fingers? Forget the likes of Brian Bosworth and Palmeiro. Think overzealous parents, increasingly professional youth leagues, a culture that prizes athletic achievement above just about everything else.

Besides, even if a kid takes steroids because he idolizes Bonds, that doesn't mean Bonds should have to refrain. The man can smoke. He can patronize a strip club. He can vote, pay taxes, see an R-rated movie.

"There are things that are appropriate for adults that aren't appropriate for children," Sullum said. "I guess athletes shouldn't be driving cars, either."

Go back to Anderson, her Maxim cover-girl peers, Hollywood starlets in general. Bodies by liposuction. Bee-stung lips pumped with Botox. Magazine cover portraits, Photoshopped to the nth degree.

Who has done more psychological damage to the youth of America? A few buffed-up sluggers? Or scores of waifish supermodels, driving teenage girls to anorexia and their mothers to the nearest plastic surgeon?

Maybe President Bush can scold the cast of "Desperate Housewives" during his next State of the Union Address. Perhaps Congress should subpoena Kate Moss.

"I don't understand why athletes get this burden of being role models that no other public figures have," Sullum said. "Why more of a role model than an actor or a scientist? Everybody ought to be moral, but being an athlete doesn't impose a special burden."

We're All Hypocrites
We pop recreational Viagra. We study for exams by popping Ritalin. We shed extra pounds with gastric bypass surgery, a grisly medical procedure rife with ghastly side effects (gallstones, anemia, pulmonary embolism). We enhance ourselves on a daily basis -- for performance, for fun, for petty vanity. Because, quite frankly, we can.

"It's the American way," Ruhling said. "If I want to be in shape today, I should have been in shape yesterday. If one is good, 10 will be a lot better."

Do as we say, sports world. Not as we already do.

(Unless you're talking cow hormones. That's still pretty gross).

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.