Steroids in Entertainment

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and steroids in particular, in sports. But while two of the major sports in the US get most of the attention, what is carefully NOT said is that steroids permeate the entertainment industry.

This entire episode is really an aside for a thought I was developing a while back: Superman does ‘roids. As steroid abuse became prevalent in sports, we the couch potatoes began to form an entirely different idea of what ‘ripped’ was, and the bodies of superheroes naturally had to live up to that ideal. Our heroes, even the fictitious ones from other planets, have been sporting ever-more-sculpted bodies, keeping up with Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno and all the other ‘roided-up bodybuilders of the ’70’s.

Today, while sports-related PED use gets all the press, other branches of the entertainment industry are desperately clinging to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The entertainment press has no interest in exposing steroid use among actors; infidelity and coke are mainstays of scandal but let’s not talk about how Actor X got so buff for his last movie. Scandal sells, but only the sort of scandal that perpetuates the Hollywood Myth. In a land of smoke and mirrors, only the smoke and mirrors are sacred.

That’s not to say that the sports franchises have come clean.

This is where the picture of Elmer Fudd sitting on a powder keg, fuse almost burned away, with his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut tight would be if it were legal for me to put an image like that here, and/or if my searches for such an image had borne fruit.

Take the NBA, for example. The leadership of the league will tell you that steroids are not a problem in their league. This isn’t based on any sort of science, or on a rigorous testing policy (testing in the NBA is a joke), but rather on the assertion that steroids don’t enhance the type of activities that basketball players do.

Um… say what?

Let’s imagine for a moment that we could jump in a time machine and go back to the ’80’s, and have a chat with one of the greatest basketball players ever to have donned a pair of sneakers. We know Michael Jordan is motivated by winning and pretty much nothing else. So let’s imagine what his answer would be if we told him, “there’s a chemical you can take that will allow you to jump a tiny bit higher, last a little longer on the court, and to recover more quickly from the inevitable sprains and bruises that are part of your game. It’s not exactly within the rules of the game, but you definitely won’t get caught.”

Michael Jordan had that choice. Knowing how driven he is to win, which choice would surprise you more, that he did or did not use steroids?

What a potential nightmare for the NBA.

I have to assume that the use of PED’s is also rampant in hockey. Since an individual star has the least impact in hockey compared to the bigger three sports, the does-he-or-doesn’t-he discussions are less common. A hockey player could juice up until he turned into a minotaur and commenters would say “that line has had some great shifts lately.” Over 82 games the performance boost would be measurable, but wouldn’t stand out so flagrantly. So I think it’s safe to assume that ‘roids are in use, even though no one talks about it.

Then there’s the sport-like entertainment product brought to us by the WWE, called, euphemistically, “wrestling”. You want to see what max-boost steroid use will do to a human? Look no further. Image is what they sell. Back in the day some of the biggest names in the ring were also big tubs of goo. Strong men, and passable actors, but hardly ripped. Now, take a moment to look at the headliners for the next WWE event. Pretty crazy, right? Everyone knows these guys do steroids. As long as no one talks about it too loudly, all parties are allowed to let things continue this way.

So why are we OK with these guys using steroids, but not the athletes in ‘real’ sports? The generally agreed upon reason to ban these drugs is to protect the health of athletes. But is the health of a baseball player inherently more valuable than the health of a pro wrestler? If health were the real reason, then outrage would be consistent across the entertainment industry.

And, you know? I can get therapies for my sore knee that professional athletes can’t. Does that make sense?

If not health, then what is the reason? Is it fairness? I think mostly yes. As the system stands, people willing to break the rules have an advantage over those who behave ethically. Particularly in my favorite country, the United States, that rankles. It sure bothers me. So ‘real’ sports, where there’s actual competition, try with varying levels of success to catch the cheaters.

Unless you consider the NBA a real sport. (It’s borderline for me.) There’s really not much effort to enforce their drug policy. They do have random testing, sure, but they can only test a player four times each year. After the fourth test, a player is off to the races. Even before that, the tests are easy to beat.

Interestingly, this continued state of denial, of not doing anything meaningful to police the use of performance-enhancing drugs, puts the NBA in a position to bring about meaningful change. Were I king of that league, I’d pass the following edict: People pay to see the top performers in our sport. We will provide that product. To maintain fairness, we’ll allow all athletes in our league to take whatever PED’s are legal in this land, and we’ll even provide responsible medical supervision.

Bickety-bam, prohibition is over. And while there will still be cheaters who do unhealthy amounts of performance-enhancing drugs, the advantage they gain by doing so will be diminished. And when your favorite athlete comes back from an injury more quickly, everyone wins. Seriously, how can it be a bad thing when someone gets well more quickly? There are some big-name athletes with shadows over them because of ‘miraculous recoveries’. They must have cheated, right? What kind of messed-up system makes recovering from an injury too quickly a bad thing?

So let’s put on our Goggles of Reasonableness and question the assumptions behind the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. And while we’re at it, lets recognize a simple truth: We want to watch enhanced performers.


8 thoughts on “Steroids in Entertainment

  1. I don’t entirely agree with you, but I have to say, ‘Well said, and excellent points all around.” Especially as concerns actors and pro wrestlers.

    I am disappointed that PEDs can’t be stamped out, and it really bugs my fairness principle. But I don’t have a better solution.

    One thing you don’t mention is how hazardous PEDs are. Schwarznegger seems to be unusually lucky that his pancreas hasn’t swelled up with a cancer the size of Lake Michigan.

    Is your problem with the NBA that it is an overregulated sport populated by disloyal divas or do you just not like the basic sport of putting a ball thru a 10’ high hoop?

    • The diva thing is definitely a problem in the sport, but basketball at the professional level can be tedious to say the least. Millionaires jogging around, giving 50% effort on offense (with, I admit, the occasional burst of 100% effort) and 30% on defense at best, and during the last five minutes of a game the clock is only running about 20% of the time.

      Some PED’s are more harmful than others, and I admit that my proposal above is more about reducing the harm they do than eliminating it. Right now athletes (and other entertainers) are taking quantities of steroids that not only are unsafe, they’re not useful*. But more is better, right?

      And some PED’s aren’t harmful even at the levels they’re abused in pro sports. They’re just banned because it’s too hard to write a rule that differentiates them.

      My rule of thumb: If it’s legal for me to use the PED, it should be legal for a pro athlete.

      And don’t get me started on deer antler spray. That one can be solved not by measuring an athlete’s testosterone level, but his IQ.

      * That’s the sort of assertion that really should be backed by citable sources, especially since it’s core to my argument. But I’m lazy.

      • Deer antler spray? since I’ve never heard of it, I have to ‘get you started.’

        What is it? Something akin to ground rhino horn?

        Did you know (but don’t quote me on this, as I am not entirely sure), that caffeine is banned as a ped in the olympics?

        • Deer antler spray. I’m doing this from memory, so don’t be quoting me in medical journals.

          So you’ve got your Human Growth Hormone, HGH, which has proven efficacious in treating joint degeneration in the elderly. It might also help pro athletes heal faster, which is why it’s banned.

          Deer Antlers have a chemical similar to HGH, that might get turned into HGH in the human body. There might be one more level of indirection, that the deer antler chemical is similar to something that turns into HGH. I’m fuzzy. But here’s the thing I know for sure: There’s no science at all to support that Deer Antler Spray enhances performance in any way. But because Quacks sell it as a performance enhancer, it’s banned in most sports.

          A big hullaballoo went down a couple of years ago when acquitted-murderer-turned-holy-man Ray Lewis, a pro football linebacker, came back from injury extraordinarily quickly and helped his team win the Super Bowl. Turns out a deer antler salesman was being investigated and turned over records that Lewis (among others) had been one of his customers. Ray also allegedly bought magic stickers. (They weren’t actually marketed as ‘magic’, they were supposed to be magnetized or exposed to special radiation or ionized or some shit like that.)

          Lewis, of course, denied everything, and I don’t blame him. Not because he was knowingly cheating, but because it really makes him look like an idiot.

  2. IIRC, the limit on caffeine is the equivalent of 4 cups of strong coffee, which for me would about triple my stamina or rupture an artery.

    As for PEDs, I don’t want to have to choose between my viability and competing. There are lots of “nothing to lose” stories in pro sports, and that would be my competition. Steroids would be my drug of choice as a pro, especially when it comes to injuries, and there are undoubtedly long-term consequences to use. Level playing field + not requiring that I give my life to make a living = no PEDs, in my book.

    I would be fine with 2 leagues for each sports: unlimited drugs, and 0-tolerance. One would be more fun to watch, but ever “W” would come with a “*”, and I bet the real “heroes” (i.e. the ones that sell T-shirts) would come from the clean league.

    Welcome back to the “real world”, Jer. Maybe you can celebrate your 50th at mine. -b.

    • I believe I first heard the two-league idea from M. Hensley, who likened it to drag racing, which has the “unlimited” class. Or maybe that was some other king of racing. Anyway, auto racing has a spectrum of limitations, and successful races even in the super-limited classes. It could work for other sports as well.

      It seems I’m taking my re-entry into this world called ‘real’ slowly, in part because I have so much stuff I set aside during my work crunch. I’m still not doing it, mind, but I’m having to be more creative with my excuses.

      • I did used to spout off about a hypothetical “unlimited class” in professional sports, as far as PEDs go. I postulate problems in the real world, starting with liability lawsuits, as the long-term results of unlimited PEDs become better known, and including the troubling social issue of the racial makeup of the Unlimited and Zero-Tolerance divisions.

        Ultimately, in Sports it comes down to records and “fairness,” but that’s long since been rendered meaningless by training methods, medical advances, and outrageous salaries.

        I was going to blather on about baseball offering a template for other, younger sports, what with its different “eras,” but then I found an article that mentions the elephant in the room: the Steroid Era:

        So there ya go.

        Finally, as far as ‘roids in entertainment goes… well, I remember reading an entertainment-industry article some years ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger was considering his post-gubernatorial job options, and happened to see the Spartan epic “300.” He used his Hollywood connections to have a phone conversation with someone involved in the production, and asked what body-building methods were used — specifically about how all those principals and extras had awesome washboard abs. The answer was basically that the training method was pizza, and the abs were the result of digital image manipulation.

        Now, Hollywood has a long history of rewarding performers who physically suffer for a part — think De Niro in “Raging Bull” or Christian Bale in “The Machinist.” Could Hollywood ‘roid use become a mark of honor, as opposed to the sell-out of having your body digitally re-sculpted?

  3. I was re-reading this article and I had a holy-shit-I-didn’t-realize-how-right-I-am moment. Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California and as far as I can remember, the opposition never asked, even sideways, “Gee, I wonder if Arnie uses ‘roids.” You can call him a womanizing dirtbag, but there are certain dark corners the entertainment industry (I’m including the news outlets here) will keep dark.

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