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Drugs Gone Wild
Let's Get Serious About Ending the Cheating


Every major newspaper and magazine has headlined the BALCO scandal involving Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Marion Jones, and performance-enhancing drugs. Few of us are surprised at the allegations. But the extent of the apparent lying and cheating at the highest levels is devastating. That sport can and will remain intact because of its entertainment value is a given—as is the response by major sports organizations that smells more like an attempt to protect market share than a step to protect athletes and athletics.

The sports medicine community needs to advocate for healthy participation in sports—and that includes taking an iron stand against drug use. Athletes' lives are at stake, and not just the lives of elite athletes. Kids imitate their sports heroes. Let's start with basic steps:

•Adopt World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) standards across all professional sports. Major League Baseball's drug-testing "policy" is a farce, and the NHL (if it ever resumes) has no policy. The NFL has the toughest testing policy, but even it could go further.

•Abolish announced testing. All sports need to enforce random, unannounced drug testing. If sports' governing bodies can't clean up their acts, legislators may well step in. Which brings me to my next recommendation:

•Legislate tougher policies if the pro leagues won't do it. Dick Pound, chairman of WADA, suggests making the use of public stadiums, tax breaks, and other incentives contingent on adhering to a tougher drug policy. Makes sense to me.

•Create penalties for players that actually mean something. The NFL has the toughest policy, with a four-game suspension for a first positive test and a minimum 1-year suspension for a third positive test. Simply wimpy. My proposal: forgo half the season's games for the first failed test, a full season for a second failure, and three strikes and you're out. That will hit players in the pocketbook, which is often the only way to get their attention. Better still, add financial penalties for the team also, to simultaneously attract the owners' interest.

•Mandate that any drug offender perform community service, educating young athletes about the dangers and wrongs of performance-enhancing substances. We need the message to get out as early as possible from the very athletes these kids admire.

And what can we as physicians do? For starters, advisory panels and other groups studying injury rates and risk in sports should include illegal drugs and cheating in their list of unhealthy activities.

But it's also time to talk about team physicians' disassociating themselves from sports that passively allow performance-enhancing drugs. Pro sports that do not test for cheaters and make only an anemic attempt to regulate drug use should not garner support from physicians. The message these teams send their players is the antithesis of healthcare. In fact, it's health corruption. What are we communicating by serving as team physicians to such teams? It's time to put players' health before money, championships, medals, records—and even our livelihood.

Economics, marketing, status, or reputation should not keep physicians from doing the right thing. Rather than look the other way, we must send a clear message. In the words of Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

None of the teams could function without the support of their team physicians, and we have an opportunity for great individual and collective influence. I would like to see all team physicians take a strong stand against drug use. If that means resigning, so be it. At least we'll sleep well.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD

P.S. Next month we'll tackle the overarching topic of what's wrong in sports—and maybe how we've all contributed. Tune in.