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STEROIDS - A PLAGUE THAT THE NFL MUST DEAL WITH

The other day in Washington, Bill Fralic, one of the best offensive linemen in the National Football League, stuffed himself into an expensive suit, fingered the French cuffs on his silk shirt, sat down in front of a panel of senators and said approximately three of every four NFL linemen and linebackers have used steroids. That is a tad higher than the 6 or 7 percent the NFL has claimed.

I believe Fralic. You should, too. I don't know if the number is as high as 75 percent, but if not, it is close. The press and public have not even begun to understand how pervasive steroids have become in pro football. They are everywhere, almost as common as chin straps. Hundreds of players are using them. The best players. The worst players. Role models. Rookies.This is a conclusion I reached long before Fralic spoke out. I had no data, no hard evidence. But I had spent too many Sundays wandering through locker rooms looking at players whose size almost defied belief. I saw bloated faces, arms, chests and necks that

appeared to have been inflated with air. I knew no one that looked as they did, and I wondered. (Do you know any 300-pounders who don't have their faces permanently stuffed in a pizza box?)

Some doctors explained it to me. It is not complicated, they said. When you see players blown up like that, you can almost be certain they are on steroids. The body can only develop so much without outside help. Diet and weight training can only do so much.

"You reach a certain point, and that's it," Dr. Bill Howard, head of the sports medicine clinic at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore said Wednesday. "You can tell a player is on steroids just by looking. If he is all muscled up like a comic-strip hero, he's probably on steroids.

"If you look back to the days of Charles Atlas, who was supposed to be the world's strongest man, he looked like a good, healthy, strong guy. Today, they look like caricatures. It's just obvious."

Those educated in this matter, such as Howard, can watch a game on television and spot steroid users as easily as touchdowns. Their clear consensus is hundreds of players, desperate for success, are taking steroids, risking heart disease, hypertension, impotence and liver disease. It is an epidemic. If it continues, the NFL could soon be "a freak show," Fralic said.

"I talked to one agent who represents a number of players," Howard said, "and he said at least half of his are using steroids. And he has a good group, generally players who graduated from college. So if at least half the smart players are doing it, you have to believe the overall figure is close to 75 percent."

Howard mentioned Tony Mandarich, the 315-pound lineman who was the second player chosen in the recent draft. He has passed every steroid test and adamantly denies using them, but he is balding and has acne, which are two common steroid side effects.

"I wouldn't want to ask him in person if he is on steroids," Howard said, "but there ain't no doubt about it."

The NFL knows a problem exists. You would have to be ignorant not to, and league management is not ignorant. But the corrective steps that have been taken are embarrassingly puny. A testing system was installed. Players are tested once, during training camp. They know well in advance when they must be clean, and it takes only two weeks to two months for residue of steroid use to disappear, Howard said.

"You would have to be pretty stupid" to flunk the test, he said. (Players who do fail are tested randomly the rest of the season. But as long as they pass the training-camp test, they can spend the season on steroids.)

The training-camp tests were the basis on which NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle concluded that 6 to 7 percent of the players were using steroids.

"For him to say that with a straight face refutes the fact that he has no sense of humor," Howard said. "When he does that, the NFL has to be accused of contributing to the problem." (Under questioning at the Senate hearing, Rozelle admitted the percentage may be higher.)

As we grow more enlightened about this problem, it becomes obvious that a random testing system has to be installed. I am among those not in favor of random testing for illegal drugs, because it violates a person's rights. But the NFL does not have a drug problem; the numbers are not much different from the rest of society. The NFL does, however, have a steroid problem. Compared to the rest of society, steroid use in the NFL is a plague.

Besides, unlike with drugs, steroid use is challenging the legitimacy of the NFL. This is why I favor random testing. Players on steroids are bigger, stronger, quicker, have a clear advantage over those not on steroids. The playing field is not level. It is no longer necessarily a matter of the best team winning. It is the one with the best steroid dealer.

"Random testing is absolutely the only course," Howard said.

Even that will not cure the ill, however. Players are becoming better at hiding evidence of steroid use. They use masking agents. Some actually inject growth hormones into their bodies instead of steroids. You can't test for illegal hormones.

Still, random testing surely would reduce the number of users. It would be a start, a bridge on which we can stand while science searches for better ways to detect usage. Certainly, something has to be done. (Perhaps a weight limit? Not the most absurd idea.) A vicious cycle already is in place.

"If you want to play in the NFL today, you have to use steroids," Howard said. "To get drafted, you have to use steroids in college, because so many kids are doing it and the competition is tough. To get to college, you have to get a scholarship. So you have a lot of high school kids using steroids. That's going to be a real disaster. And it's got to be stopped at the upper end. That's the only way."