Playing With Steroids

A Chat with Dr. Charles Yesalis


Charles Yesalis knows all there is to know about the steroid game.

One of the world's leading experts on the use and abuse of performance-enhancing substances in professional and amateur athletics, Dr. Yesalis has testified before Congress on legislation dealing with the control of anabolic steroids and growth hormone abuse, and has been a key consultant for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Drug Enforcement Administration, NFL Players Association, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Olympic Committee, National College Athletic Association, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, to name only a few.

He's the author or co-author of several authoritative books on steroids, including The Steroids Game, which focuses on education, prevention, and intervention of anabolic steroid use in athletics.

He's also the editor or co-editor of two comprehensive medical references, Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise and Performance Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise, and has published over sixty scholarly journal articles on the subject.

Depending on which side of the contentious issue of performance-enhancing substances you happen to be on, you might think this man is either your most stalwart ally, or your deadliest foe.

You'd probably be right either way. Like most contentious issues, the anabolic steroid game has more than just two sides. Neither an advocate nor an ardent abolitionist, Charles Yesalis is uniquely qualified to view the game from all sides.

Currently a professor of health policy and administration of exercise and sport science at Penn State, Dr. Yesalis was kind enough to share his opinions on the matter with Testosterone member Chris DiEugenio. Here's how it went down.

How did you first become involved with the study of steroids in sports?

Dr. Yesalis: I was a volunteer strength coach with the University of Iowa wrestling team. The athletes used to ask me about steroids all the time, and I simply didn't know the answers to their questions. So I had to do what everyone did back in the Dark Ages before the dawn of the Internet: I went to the library. The more I researched anabolic steroids, the more I was struck by just how much we didn't know about them. This really intrigued me, and stimulated me to do even more, deeper research.

Testosterone: You've been one of the leading voices in the crusade against anabolic steroids and other drugs in athletics. Can you explain your major objection to them?

Dr. Yesalis:

Listen, if I could bring a Glock 9mm onto the field during a football game, I would have a distinct advantage over even the biggest player on the other team. I could just shoot him. But I'd be breaking the law, and violating the rules of the game. It's the same thing.

Choose your weapon.

Testosterone: So steroids pose less of a health risk than most people believe?

Dr. Yesalis:

Think about it: medical science has been using steroids safely in a clinical setting for the last 70 years. Anabolic steroids can be used relatively safely, but at even low doses they can have side effects. No drug, supplement, or substance is totally "safe." Heck, you can even overdose on water.

My personal opinion is that if one uses these drugs at high dosages, over a long period of time, then yes, they're too powerful to fool Mother Nature. And it's the oral (hepatoxic) steroids that can potentially be the most harmful. But should they be placed in the category of "killer drugs"? Absolutely not. Not even close.

Testosterone: And what about reports of so-called steroid rage?

Dr. Yesalis: The reporting is shoddy. The problem is that we live in a sound bite culture. I know of only a few exceptional journalists out there. Use of some drugs may induce a "rage," but in only a very small percentage of users, and it's these isolated incidents that are reported.

Another result of this shoddy reporting is that the average Joe thinks the steroid issue is all about Testosterone and HGH, because those are the only two names he hears in the media. Those of us who are informed about the subject know that the hormonal milieu is vastly broader than that, but the press predominantly harps on these two. This kind of wobbly portrayal of steroids indicates to me that there may be some hidden agenda involved with "steroid stories."

But let me put this whole "rage" thing into perspective for you, Chris. You've been to Penn State home games. If you told me you've never seen outbursts of "rage" at a football game, then I would have to call "bullshit." They happen all the time. And that's not steroids, that's alcohol. It's not even in the same ballpark."

Penn State football games are a common venue for "booze rage."

Testosterone: Judging from the organizations you're affiliated with, and also from reading past interviews you've given, it seems that your primary goal is keeping these drugs out of the hands of young people. What can parents do to keep their kids off the juice?

Dr. Yesalis:

From a moral and ethical standpoint, how you raise a child will determine that child's behavior. If you instill certain standards in them, then they won't cross certain lines. If parents want to make sure that their kids are not crossing lines, they need to be paying attention to who coaches their children, and what's being told to them, and then they need to step back and re-examine their own relationship with their kids as well.

Fanatical Sports Dad: unintentional steroid pusher?

Testosterone: In response to a study published in 2000, stating that usage of steroids among 8th graders had become as prevalent as it was among high school seniors, you were quoted as saying, "It's scary for anybody to use these drugs, but in particular women and children." Just to clarify, though, you do believe that a healthy male adult can potentially use anabolic steroids safely?

Dr. Yesalis: It would be dishonest to answer "no."

Testosterone: Okay, the next one's a bit of a touchy subject, for obvious reasons. You've stated "I have never met a steroid user who didn't use supplements first." Does this imply that you're anti-supplements?

Dr. Yesalis:

The only reason I say this is that it can develop into a mindset where the supplements become an item the child athlete just can't do without. I don't like the signal it sends to kids. They grab their bat, their glove, their bag, and their supplements. The supplements become a crutch.

Testosterone: Now let's move to the opposite end of the age spectrum, and talk about hormone replacement treatment. In his book, Dr. E. Barry Gordon has linked free testosterone deficiency to a whole range of diseases. What's your view on this?

A serious look at a serious problem.

Dr. Yesalis:

There are potentially some huge benefits to replacement therapy, such as increased bone density, sense of well-being, and sex drive. However, I feel that the aging clinics are "low-balling" what they consider to be optimal healthy hormonal levels.

On the other hand, this isn't a legal or ethical issue, more a matter of "my body, my life, my choice." People can legally go and get this treatment, just as they can go and get cosmetic surgery, which potentially has worse and longer-lasting side effects than steroids. The same argument can be, and has been, made for abortion.

Testosterone: Okay, last question: do you see a real solution to the drug problem in sports today?

Dr. Yesalis:

So we can't totally place blame on the athletes for the drug use in sports: it's part and parcel of the business of entertainment. And the drug testing policy of professional sports organizations amounts to little more than a policy of plausible deniability. I've said it before: I could take an M-1 tank and drive it, at night, through the loopholes in NFL drug testing, without even scratching the armor plates.

These organizations, all they do is create facades and special effects worthy of a George Lucas film: just sophisticated ways to convince the average fan that there is no issue to be seen.

"These aren't the drugs you're looking for."

The drug problem has always been with us, and it always will be. Athletes have always used performance-enhancing substances, from amphetamines to steroids, and amphetamines are by far more dangerous. It's human nature to try to obtain every possible advantage for success. If there were a drug available that would dramatically increase the ability of University faculty to get grants, you'd better believe they'd be injecting their butts with it in front of Old Main.

Faculty members one hour before submitting their grant applications.

Testosterone: And with that happy mental image, I think we'll wrap it up. Thank you very much, Dr. Yesalis.