It's time for players to confront ephedra use

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

By Stephen A. Smith ~ Philadelphia Inquirer

Until Steve Bechler of the Baltimore Orioles died last week, most athletes might not have cared much about the dangers of ephedra. If a little old herb could help them lose weight and provide an energy boost, who cared about such potentially fatal effects as hypertension, irregular heartbeat, stroke and seizure?

"It's their life, not ours.

Haven't we heard this argument before?

Haven't we heard players say that other people don't have a clue about what they're thinking or going through? They've got families to feed. Endorsement dollars to ring up. Salaries to negotiate.

Right now, they're right. None of us has a clue as to what major-league baseball players are thinking about this issue.

In about a week, though, a toxicology report will be issued with the details of why Bechler, 23, ended up with a body temperature of 108 degrees after working out in Florida with the temperature at 81 and why, with his pregnant wife at his side, he ended up dying.

We will find out if ephedra contributed to his death or caused it outright. Until then, essentially, we know nothing.

Proponents of the over-the-counter drug would have us believe that there's little problem with using it as long as it's used as directed. They will point to a six-month study at Harvard and Columbia Universities on an ephedra/caffeine product, a study that concluded that it was safe to use.

Mind you, that information comes from the manufacturers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in response to a question last week: "I wouldn't use it. Would you?" But the manufacturers would have us ignore that.

A report by the Food and Drug Administration links at least 100 deaths to the use of ephedra, but the manufacturers would have us ignore that, too.

They sound just like the players. Except businesses don't have a pulse to lose.

The mere suggestion that ephedra could have contributed to a fatality should be enough for baseball players to take notice. They are role models. They have constantly told us they are concerned about public perception.

A lot of children are watching professional players, trying to emulate what they believe got them to the height of their sport. What conclusion should players expect a child to draw when ephedra is marketed for weight loss and bodybuilding?

For those who have targeted Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, stop wasting time. He's just protecting the players' interest.

Fehr should have nothing to do with this argument. Despite his title, he is answerable to the players. If the players want testing, he has no choice but to acquiesce.

By all indications, however, the players will not ask for testing. While there is random drug testing in other sports, there is only cause-related testing in baseball.

So, basically, if a player does not go to a team official or a team official does not go to a major-league official stating that they have reason to believe a player is using drugs, there is no testing.

Disgusted? Join the crowd.

Whenever the players' union has sneezed, Major League Baseball has provided the tissue. When told to jump, major-league officials have not even bothered to ask "How high?" They just started leaping.

The lack of a salary cap and the major leagues' bogus drug policy are enough evidence to allow us to surmise that commissioner Bud Selig has had zero clout in his battles with Fehr. So it's understandable that the players always hold out.

Now it's time for them to step up.

Ephedra is banned by the NCAA. It's banned by the NFL and by the International Olympic Committee.

What's baseball's problem?

I know the joke is that baseball is one of the few sports in which a player can have a pot belly, plus a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, and still be an all-star. But good judgment is still necessary when the masses are watching.

Baseball players can drop the ball or, for a change, pick it up in the best interest of their public image.

The choice is theirs.

Here's hoping that they make the right one. Before we're mourning the death of one of Bechler's colleagues, not just Bechler himself.

Steven Smith is a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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