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Wilbon: A Chemistry Test For Team Players


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A Chemistry Test For Team Players

By Michael Wilbon

Tuesday, November 18, 2003; Page D01

Is anybody out there stunned that the first NFL team to be linked directly to the designer steroid THG is the Oakland Raiders? Let's see, the Raiders live and work within minutes of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), whose owner is being investigated for allegedly laundering funds from selling the illegal performance-enhancing drug.

Perhaps more than any team in the history of professional sports, the Raiders love being notorious. They court it. Remember some years ago when several Raiders were accused of having a "criminal intent?" Some players wore the phrase like a badge of honor.

And before we forget, the Raiders are the team of Bill Romanowski, Mr. Fitness, a man who says he tests his urine and has his -- excuse me -- fecal samples tested at a laboratory so that he, The Great Romo sits to pee, can "tell what kinds of bacteria are in you, what kind of deficiencies you have."

I'd love to see what Romo sits to pee's urine test showed, if there were the same traces of THG that the NFL-administered drug test reportedly shows. By now you have to have heard that Romo sits to pee, Dana Stubblefield. Barret Robbins and Chris Cooper of the Raiders reportedly have tested positive for THG and face four-game suspensions, that all four have received letters from the NFL stating as much.

All indications are it's not just baseball players and track and field athletes who federal authorities and league executives believe are fiddling around with tetrahydrogestrinone, the steroid that wasn't on many radar screens until last month. And it should come as no surprise that competitive athletes would actively take or passively allow themselves to be given any substance that would allow them to train beyond the natural limits of the human body and recover from injuries more quickly. And if that steroid were not on the banned-substances list for the league or athletic body doing the testing, they'd eat it like cornflakes.

Given the money that's at stake today in world-class competition, most athletes would take anything that didn't kill them in an hour, particularly if they were convinced it wasn't detectable or banned. And why wouldn't they? If I thought THG could help me get richer doing what I do, I'd take it tonight -- and with a clear conscience if it weren't banned.

THG hadn't been on any banned-substances list because most of the chemists policing steroids in the world hadn't apparently discovered its existence until last month.

So even though the four Raiders may appear to face four-game suspensions, and even though Romanowski appears at the moment to be the biggest hypocrite on the planet, the players most likely will beat the suspension on appeal. Why? Because THG wasn't on the banned-substances list and players have smart lawyers who are going to say very forcefully, "My client isn't going to be suspended because you meant to have THG on the list, but didn't know about it."

The players' lawyers aren't going to be in favor of THG being included ex post facto on the banned list. Sounds like the steroid cops didn't have the right chemists on their side. The bet here is that they'll walk this time and the leagues and governing bodies will have to adopt language that perhaps includes unknown steroids, though that will surely get messy.

In any case, we appear to be in one of those periods when performance-enhancing drugs will stay in the news, particularly as the grand jury calls witnesses to testify, including Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, "Sugar" Shane Mosley and a host of others.

It's nice of Major League Baseball to wake up and join the chase, isn't it? MLB announced last week that 5 to 7 percent of its players have tested positive -- anonymously -- for steroid use, then offered a spin that this is such a small amount that everybody should be sort of, well, relieved and that Ken Caminiti grossly overstated how many baseball players are on the juice.

Of course, that doesn't wash. If 5 to 7 percent of players tested positive even though the tests were announced months in advance, you can imagine how many players were simply smart enough to cycle off the stuff in time to test negative. Anybody who thinks we're talking anything less than double-digit numbers of positive results is naive, and MLB executives and union leaders have to know that.

Baseball, new to the game of drug testing anyway, could be looking at major trouble, since baseball has so historically linked performance to personal statistics, and since performance enhancement through the use of illegal steroids could be the driving force in the seemingly unnatural rise of things like, oh, home runs.

Football has been fighting this battle for quite some time, with mixed success. The NFL won't have nearly the public relations mess baseball could have; it has been long assumed (if not accepted) that certain position players are juiced. But you can bet the NFL will have to revisit its drug policy, particularly the list of banned substances.

The NFL also would love it if this latest news were confined to the Raiders, who can easily be painted as outlaws separate and apart from the rest of the NFL. But can we please not hear any more from Romanowski, whose cheap shots have made him in my mind the most contemptible player in the NFL the last 20 years?

At the most recent Super Bowl, Romo sits to pee sat at a table righteously and talked about the portable hyperbaric chamber he travels with, which allows him to take oxygen under high pressure, about the tackle box full of diet supplements he takes -- 100 or so pills daily. Romo sits to pee sat there with two gallons of water he drinks every day, which must be purified and ionized by a special device. He says he won't drink coffee, eats French fries maybe once a year, the implication being he doesn't pollute his body with anything so vile.

There may be plenty of baseball players and football players who probably don't know exactly what they're taking, some who don't want to know, and some who only want to know if it's legal or banned. But does Romo sits to pee, a guy who tests his own urine and "stool samples" sound like a guy who doesn't know what time it is, who puts anything in his system without knowing exactly what he's doing?

Even if he and his teammates beat this rap, a better result through chemistry might have just gotten very messy as the feds close on BALCO and its founder, Victor Conte. May the best chemists win.

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