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Doctor says 'hysteria' rules debate on steroids

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Doctor says 'hysteria' rules debate on steroids

'I'm not on a crusade' about steroids


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Can you even hear the good doctor?

Above all the shouting and noise?

Or does his Harvard doctorate, his position atop the University of Wisconsin's medical program and his decades of study on steroids get pushed aside by the lynch mob's desire to point fingers, shake torches and scream ''Cheat!'' at baseball's biggest players?

''The press coverage on steroids is so relentlessly mono-thematic it is hard for people to think clearly,'' Dr. Norman Fost says. ``It's hysteria. There are some harms with steroids, mostly reversible and mild, but the press grossly distorts and wildly overstates them. It's irrational. Why does it get such play when it isn't even true?''

Well, um . . .

''People become emotional and make up medical facts to support their view,'' says Fost, professor of pediatrics and director of Wisconsin's program in medical ethics. 'Good ethics start with good facts, and there are so many bad `facts' out there on steroids. Liver cancer? There's no evidence I can find anywhere to support you can get liver cancer from steroids. Injectibles don't even go to the liver or gut. And yet I see it repeated over and over again in news accounts, a photocopied paragraph borrowed from previous news accounts linking it to liver cancer. It's laziness. It shouldn't be repeated. It's not true. No doctor says it is.''

But, um . . .

''Even avid steroid opponents admit there has been great exaggeration and distortion of the risks,'' says Fost, who has been writing about steroids in medical journals for more than two decades. ``But the sports media's coverage of this is uncritical, repetitious, clichéd, reluctant and repeatedly distorting of risk and harm.''

Yeah, but . . .

''I'm not on a crusade here,'' Fost says calmly. ``It just bothers me when people use bad facts, sloppy reasoning and hypocrisy to make moral arguments. I'm trying to bring rational discourse to complex ethical problems. But this isn't rational discourse. Every time I talk about this, the chancellor gets messages from angry alumni who say they're going to stop donating because there's a wacko on the faculty.''


''Fortunately,'' he says, ``I have tenure.''


Yeah, but . . .

''We're encouraging young people to do death-defying things in gymnastics,'' Fost says. ``I have a daughter who has suffered five fractures and dislocations in gymnastics. If the concern on steroids is protecting athletes from life-threatening, limb-threatening things, if it's really paternalistic, gymnastics would be a much more sensible place to start than steroids. It's more dangerous.''

But . . .

''Or how about football?'' Fost says. ``There's far more permanent disability in football than there is from steroids. Just practicing in the summertime can kill you and does. Football is way more harmful than steroids, way more. In football, just about everyone who plays a good amount of time is permanently disabled in some way, there are spinal risks and even a small chance of dying or dying early. We let athletes make those risk choices in exchange for money. Why is it that we let them play quarterback, with a very high health risk to the brain or spine, but won't let them take steroids, with a very low health risk?''

But . . .

''Children should not use steroids,'' Fost says. ``There should be an absolute prohibition on steroids for children under 18. It can stunt growth. There are irreversible dangers that are more dangerous than voice changes, acne and growing hair in undesirable places. But athletes? They should have access to the drugs with FDA approval and supervision. They are going to take this with our without testing -- the users always have been ahead of the testers scientifically -- so why not have the information and drugs in the regular marketplace instead of how we have it now?''


But . . .

''Explain this hypocrisy to me,'' Fost says. 'Ben Johnson gets universally and internationally ridiculed and castigated for trying to gain an unfair advantage by using a steroid that was on every training table at the time. But Janet Evans gets to be America's sweetheart while at a press conference after winning and she's holding up a greasy swimsuit that was a tribute to American technology. It was developed and kept secret from East Germany. She was bragging about it, admitting it shaved seconds off her time, crediting it for helping her win. It was secret and unavailable, as opposed to what Ben Johnson was using to gain his `unfair advantage.' ''

But . . .

''I really don't understand the media's role in creating this kind of hysteria about steroids,'' Fost says. ``There's Lyle Alzado dying on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in The New York Times with a this-is-what-happens-on-steroids headline. It's just not true. He had brain cancer. There is no empirical link between steroids and brain cancer. It's just not true.''

Not true?

Well, what the heck does that have to do with anything?

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