CNN - Sports Illustrated Blame dangerous, excessive training regimens -- not ephedra
Posted: Wednesday February 19, 2003 1:17 PM
So another professional athlete is dead, and a primary suspect has already been fingered: ephedrine, the over-the-counter stimulant that allegedly contributed to the death of Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler on Monday.
As with Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Vikings tackle who collapsed during a training camp practice 18 months ago, a big, powerful athlete has been cut down in his physical prime
. And again, much of the accompanying sadness and anger seems focused on the bottles of supplements that were said to have been found in each man's locker.
I'm no doctor, and I certainly can't presume to know what exact factors might have caused the heatstrokes that killed Stringer and Bechler. But I do know something about athletes and the way they're made to train, and when I hear people such as Broward (Fla.) County medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper, who performed Tuesday's autopsy on Bechler, express hope that this latest tragedy will "wake people up" about the dangers posed by ephedra, I can't help but feel a streak of skepticism.
It's so much easier to blame the drug -- and, by extension, the athlete who chose to use it -- than it is to examine the culture that caused Bechler and Stringer to push their bodies to the limit. Both men were overweight and out of shape when they reported to their respective preseason training sessions, and each flailed through drills in the heat and humidity. Not insignificantly, each player reportedly was admonished for his lack of conditioning by a coach -- Stringer by Mike Tice, then the Vikings offensive line assistant and now the team's head coach; Bechler by Orioles manager Mike Hargrove.
So Stringer and Bechler tried to work through their discomfort, which was not surprising. From an early age, gifted athletes learn to place great stress upon their bodies when necessary, and coaches constantly search for ways to make players work themselves harder than they'd imagined possible. The entire notion of conducting training sessions in hot locales is designed to build physical and mental toughness, but it also subjects overweight players to increased danger of pushing themselves too far.
It's a fine line, too. Last summer, as the one-year anniversary of Stringer's death approached, I had numerous conversations with elite NFL players about the perils of hot-weather workouts and the accompanying furor over ephedrine. In the wake of Stringer's death -- even though no traces of the stimulant had been found in his system -- the NFL banned the herbal substance. The players to whom I spoke were not pleased. To a man, they felt that the league's intention was to imply that Stringer's death had been caused by ephedrine, thus deflecting attention attention from larger, more troubling issues.
"They'd rather put ephedrine on the block instead of addressing what really killed Korey Stringer," one prominent NFC offensive lineman told me last summer. "He threw up three times the day before he collapsed, and the next day -- one of the hottest days of the year -- they had him in full pads. My buddy plays for the Vikings, and he said it was so hot that day, everybody was about to drop. Then, after Stringer left the field, they put him in a cold room with air conditioning, and that f----- up his system."
The player had sympathy for Stringer, but he also viewed the event with the kind of cool detachment auto racers tend to display when discussing peers who have died in wrecks. "I've been at a point in practice where you see spots and black out," the player told me matter-of-factly. "The sad thing is, it could happen to any of us."
It's impossible to keep top athletes from plowing ahead in adverse conditions, especially when jobs are on the line. But the lineman with whom I spoke believed the very concept of an intense
, grueling training camp put him and his peers in positions of increased risk. "The way we train as professional athletes is bull----," he said. "The players' association is consulting with some guys in the military, and [the military representatives] said, 'The way you guys train is such b.s. Who would burn their own guys out before a battle?' It's crazy.
"Ephedrine's in so many over-the-counter medicines, and they want to ban it because they don't want to fess up to the fact that the training we do is stupid. So they come out with all these studies that don't pertain to us. Why should we have to suffer because a couple of housewives trying to lose weight keeled over and died?"
A couple of weeks later, when I ran the ephedrine controversy past Rams running back Marshall Faulk -- probably the league's best and most respected player -- he told me, "They can ban it all they want, but I'm still going to take it."
"You need it that badly to get up for games?" I asked.
"Games?" he replied. "I don't even use it for games. I take it to get up for practice."
I figured he was kidding, and given that standout performers such as Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan and Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers served four-game suspensions last season after reportedly testing positive for banned substances, it's a pretty safe bet Faulk chose to obey the new policy. But that doesn't mean he, or virtually any other player to whom I've spoken about it since, is at peace with the rule. I realize that their opposition may not matter; it's possible that medical experts may be saving these highly driven athletes from themselves. But I also tend to agree that banning ephedrine was a convenient way of deflecting attention from a tragedy that most players refuse to characterize as a drug overdose. As one Pro Bowl player put it to me sarcastically, "Like ephedra was what killed Korey Stringer. Yeah, and the Bengals lose because their turf is sorry."
A day after Bechler's death -- and two weeks before the results of the toxicology tests will be available -- Dr. Perper was already part of a large chorus calling on Major League Baseball to ban ephedrine. I'm not saying it shouldn't, but consider that, according to Perper, Bechler was also suffering from moderate hypertension and liver dysfuntion. The medical examiner also said Bechler appeared to have been on a strict diet. Those concerned with the welfare of major leaguers might want to consider prohibiting players who are out of shape when they report from suddenly and severely restricting their food intake, then sweating off more pounds in the heat and humidity.
Would such a ban on crash diets have saved Bechler? Would a ban on ephedrine have prevented his death? I couldn't tell you, just as I can't guarantee that similar tragedies won't happen in the future. All I know is that another widow is grieving, and in April a child will enter the world without getting a chance to ever know its father.
When the kid grows up and learns about Dad, I hope he or she will hear good things about Bechler's life -- rather than too many preachy opinions about what caused the promising pitcher's death.