Barry Bonds, George Mitchell and steroids

Barry Bonds’ alleged use of performance enhancers goes all the way back to 1997, when some suggest he first used Androstenedione (Andro)—a testosterone producing hormone that has been known to dramatically increase lean muscle mass.

Andro became widely known after Mark McGwire admitted using it in 1998, the same year he broke Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record. The Food and Drug Administration and Major League Baseball (MLB) banned Andro only in April of 2004—years after the NFL, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee had banned the hormone. The following year, McGwire refused to answer questions under oath related to his possible use of steroids at a congressional hearing.

After the December 2007 release of Sen. George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in baseball, nearly 100 more players are being criticized for using similar controlled substances.

It goes uncontested that the use of controlled substances and hormones for performance enhancement is both dangerous to the players’ health and damaging to the integrity of the game. Knowing this, we have to ask why the components needed to create these substances are still widely available.

While Andro may be illegal, Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is still widely available, easy to purchase on bodybuilding.com for less than $25 with your mom and dad’s credit card.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)—the body’s precursor to Andro—is also easy to find, pricing in at a little over $5 on the same Web site. The site notes that “DHEA is hot!” Of course it is. DHEA, while not a steroid at first, converts to a steroid once in your body.

DHEA happens to be the lone hormone that survived the federal Anabolic Steroid Act of 2004. It was saved by Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Ut.) with the support of the dietary supplement industry. The MLB hesitantly banned the use of DHEA in the minor leagues, but it is still fair game in the majors—in large part due to its failure to make it into this bill.

The Mitchell Report has reignited Congress’ interest in this legal hormone, spurring new hearings and new bills regulating the use of human growth hormones with one equating HGH with anabolic steroids. Another aims to define DHEA as a controlled substance, available only by prescription for specific health conditions.

The authors of the Senate bill, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA.), John McCain (R-AZ), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), received a combined $8,000 from the political action committee of the MLB Commissioner’s Office during the 2006 election cycle—suggesting that maybe the league is getting serious about players’ health.

Although this is still a stretch, it begs the question, who is cashing in most on athletes’ use of hormonal performance enhancers?

Even if the DHEA bill passes, the dietary supplement industry has made it clear they will continue to sell athletes alternatives of equal and better quality, playing off of major leaguers’ fears of getting cut from the team roster for fear of not performing super-human feats in the batter’s box.

The truth remains that several generations of athletes have experimented with performance enhancing substances, some natural, some legal, others neither. This has always been supported by a willing dietary supplement and drug industry hungry to profit off of the health of athletes. Players who used illegal steroids are not without blame. But it might do us well to measure their crimes come in an era where use of semi-legal, often dangerous substances are often encouraged to keep up with franchise demands.

As for Bonds, whether he used these substances or not, the all-time home record is his—and no asterisk will ever change that.