By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

Maybe now we can discuss steroids and performance-enhancing drugs intelligently, rationally and without demonizing the users in the sports world. Maybe Jason Grimsley, a mediocre, journeyman major league pitcher, can do what Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti, two former All-Stars and MVPs, couldn't do.

Maybe Grimsley can force American sportswriters and broadcasters to open their eyes and realize that performance-enhancing drugs are far, far bigger than Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth's legacy and Hank Aaron's record.

For decades, the American press has taken great delight in vilifying "steroids" because we didn't respect the accomplishments of East German sprinters, Chinese swimmers, Canadian sprinters or defiant home-run hitters from the Bay Area.

(When I use "steroids" in this column I mean any banned performance-enhancing drug.)

While professional football, America's favorite pastime, was allowed to put together its smoke-screen drug-testing policy without much hysteria, and Lance Armstrong is celebrated as a cancer survivor and true American hero despite rampant overseas allegations of doping, the American press has been dogged in its demonizing of foreigners and Bonds.

Maybe that will all change now. Maybe we can move beyond restricting the conversation to bludgeoning Bonds under the guise of protecting Aaron and the integrity of the game.

The Grim(sley) Report -- the IRS investigation into Grimsley that has produced more allegations of "steroid" use in baseball -- might just blow this thing wide open and make the Bonds haters reluctantly acknowledge that their pursuit of Bonds is an injustice to the real issue.

In a society that pops a pill for every conceivable malady, in a society that rewards athletes with hundreds of millions of dollars, in a society that values money over all else, we must recognize that performance-enhancing drugs are rampant and widespread in all professional sports, and we're not going to get rid of them by vilifying the users.

We've tried that in sports and in our other high-profile, punish-the-poor-and-slap-the-wealthy-on-the-wrist war on drugs.

Ben Johnson lost his gold medal. We ridiculed East German sprinters and Chinese swimmers. Nancy Reagan said "just say no" while politicians locked up black folk and won voting support.

Just because the feds still insist on waging a drug war against disposable and villainized users doesn't mean we have to cooperate. We might have painted Bonds as the most notorious American criminal since John Gotti, but doesn't pressuring Grimsley to wear a wire seem a bit much to catch a user? We're not talking about a dealer, a Nino Brown. We're talking about using a wire to bring down a high-profile Pookie. Come on, even Bonds' critics must admit this witch hunt has nothing to do with cleaning up baseball. It's about creating headlines, securing promotions and advancing political careers one Willie Horton at a time.

It will not stop athletes from using performance enhancers. The feds know it and so do you. Putting a black face on an American epidemic is the oldest trick in the book. It might help the simpleminded sleep at night, but it's not going to stop that directionless teenager in suburbia or the inner city from doing whatever he thinks is necessary to compete at the highest level.

Our athletes, in pursuit of money, glory and peace of mind, inject, swallow and rub whatever they can to improve their performance, overcome pain and recover from injuries. Can we really blame them?

I don't have the answer to that question primarily because we've never had a serious, intelligent debate about "steroids" in this country. We sportswriters take great pleasure in rattling off clichés:

"You're shaving 20 years off your life."

"Your balls will shrink."

Many people still think athletes use performance-enhancing drugs only to build muscle or hit more home runs. We've allowed the Bonds hysteria about "the most hallowed record in sports" -- and might I add that 714 was the most hollow, segregated statistic in sports -- to define "steroid" use as strictly a hitter's issue.

It's funny how all of these marginal pitchers are the ones who keep getting caught ridin' dirty. And you thought it was only Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone.

Yes, I know, all you've heard about is Bonds, McGwire, Giambi, Palmeiro, Sheffield and Sosa. But baseball's testing policy -- which has nothing to do with leaked testimony from the BALCO investigation -- has been just as likely to bust a pitcher as a position player.

Athletes use these drugs for a variety of reasons, and we must understand as many of these motivations as possible if we ever hope to make sense of this mess.

HGH, which Grimsley allegedly cops to using on a regular basis, helps the body recover from injury. According to Dr. Ronald Klatz, the author of the popular book "Grow Young with HGH," human growth hormone is the key to reversing aging, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, improving sexual performance, etc. It's the wonder drug, and it is preferred by the super wealthy and by athletes. If used properly, according to Klatz and other doctors, HGH can benefit athletes (and others) rather than harm.

Yes, some athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to build muscle in hopes of improving their performance. Some use them to repair damaged muscles. Remember when a torn knee ligament meant a year of rehab? Now athletes recover in two or three months. Why? And, more important, why shouldn't they? They have a limited amount of time to earn money and increase their value in professional sports.

Some athletes use "steroids" to ease pain so they can play daily or weekly. Some use amphetamines -- a performance-enhancer we've failed to demonize because angry black guys from the Bay Area don't use them to hit home runs -- to get an extra jolt of energy.

It's a ridiculous, stupid, naive myth that "steroids" are not a big part of the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB and any other league that pays men and women to play games. You think a middle-aged golfer with back problems wouldn't grow young with HGH in order to keep his tour card?

Pro athletes used to routinely retire with very little money, lots of pain and a boatload of medical problems. We loved it when they played for the love of the game. Never mind that their love often ruined the second half of their lives. It was honorable.

Well, I'm not sure I'm ready to blast these guys now for using their wealth to try to ease the pain and maximize their earning power. If a doctor or trainer told you he had a "steroid" that could help you now and maybe prevent some additional pain later in life, would you take the drug? Would you worry about being vilified by the American media? Or worry about playing with your child in your 40s and 50s?

Before we go around demanding that pro sports leagues ban everything in order to protect some meaningless statistics, we had better make sure we know what we're banning, and we had better apply some common sense and perspective to this debate.

It's 2006. Protecting the "sanctity" of numbers established in 1906 or 1966 might be important to rotisserie geeks and sportswriters Bonds declined to give interviews to, but in the grand scheme that "sanctity" might be standing in the way of progress and/or a more effective way of limiting the damage caused by performance-enhancing drugs.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. He can be reached by e-mail at Sound off to Page 2 here.