In the past 10 years, four elite athletes approached Charles Yesalis about helping them hide their steroid use. They promised the Penn State professor of health and human development more money than any state university could pay him.
"One said he wasn't worried about the cost because he could write off using me as a tax deduction," said Yesalis, who rejected each offer. "He didn't see it the way you would think he would see it."
Meaning? "This is not a cheating issue for them. This is a business issue. They're worried about their families' future just like all of us."
The hand-wringing and moral vitriol spilling out after Rafael Palmeiro was suspended by Major League Baseball last week for steroid use was predictable in its clean-up-the-sport campaign. It followed that more drug testing would beget cleaner, natural-gas burning first basemen and right-handers. More public humiliation would puncture the soul of the cheater more painfully than any syringe.
But they failed to factor in the athletes who do not view use of performance-enhancing drugs as wrong or illegal. Or the culture that encourages it, a support system of teammates and doctors who also live the lie.
"When I first heard about Palmeiro, I was absolutely shocked that an elite athlete with all the access he has to people like me, that has incredible financial resources, somehow got caught," Yesalis said. "I thought, 'Is this guy a fool or what?' If the BALCO investigation taught the public anything it's that these guys are not practicing cowboy chemistry. They don't get their drugs from a guy named Lenny in an alley."
Instead, they handsomely pay subterranean drug gurus, some of whom used to make $70,000 as academicians before they succumbed to the dark side of synthetic chemistry. The conundrum in catching the crooks in sports is the same in society; the best and the brightest often leave their local prosecutor jobs to defend the bad guys, solely because it pays better. And the last Boy Scouts like Yesalis try to stay ahead of BALCO and other independent laboratories, often in futility.
"There is so much out there I could field an entire team of drug users that you couldn't catch," Yesalis said. "You could test us daily and you're still not going to catch us."
Curing the steroid epidemic, Yesalis and others are saying, is less about congressional hearings and major professional sports leagues vowing to clean up their own games. Curing the ethic behind it comes first, curing the profound disconnect between the modern elite athletes all right with their drug use and the rest of us who view it as wrong.
"And even in that sense, society gives them a mixed message," said Ronald Kamm, the past president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry, whose practice is based in Oakhurst, N.J. "We're in awe of these incredible physical specimens, many of whom we probably know might be using steroids.
"I remember how in awe I was of Ben Johnson," Kamm said, referring to the former Olympic sprinter who was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal in 1988 after testing positive for the same steroid, stanozolol, Palmeiro reportedly tested positive for.
"Let's be honest: It's more exciting to watch 300-pound guys smashing into each other on a field than 195-pound guys. We want awesome, cannot-be-duplicated-by-theaverage-human-being entertainment. But we find out they're juiced and then comes this moralistic overreaction. We're shocked our heroes cheated. Why? We contributed to their mind-set."
We don't want them to look like the rest of us. We don't want them to feel like the rest of us. If we're about conforming, their whole lives are about separating themselves from others. The term "natural" may shape our core belief about fairness in competition. Yet it means nothing to uber-humans in constant pursuit of the unnatural. They are physical astronauts, meaning they feel an obligation to explore the outer limits of their own physiology. They convince themselves everyone else is using performance-enhancing drugs, so why not them?
After all the rationalization is factored in, getting on and off a steroid cycle for these players is not viewed as cheating; it's doing the work, putting in the time and effort to educate yourself on how to use and benefit from the drugs.
One of the great travesties about Palmeiro's finger-pointing testimony in front of Congress was not that he may have lied under oath; it's that he may have lied in a room full of still-grieving parents whose teenaged sons took their own lives. Those parents testified before Congress, too. So did a multitude of doctors, who have directly linked acute depression in the boys with their withdrawal from anabolic steroids.
There is an arrogance here of profound measure. It smacks of Palmeiro and others believing they are inherently more valuable people because of what they do with their bodies.
"They're in denial," Kamm said. "They don't believe they're cheating. Palmeiro can sit there and lie because there is a part of him that rationalized it away. He needs to minimize it in his own mind just like an alcoholic or drug addict minimizes their usage. It's so essential to their being they can't admit it."
Watching them hit the ball out of the park is so essential to our being, neither can we.