Panel discusses steroid use by Major League Baseball players

At a Law School panel Tuesday afternoon, medical, legal and media experts discussed the implications of the recently released Mitchell Report, which accuses 89 Major League Baseball players of illegal steroid use and proposes a number of ways for the league to address what has become a public-relations crisis. But panelists lightened the mood around what is ordinarily a very serious topic.

“This has been enormously stimulating — in a non-pharmaceutical sense!” Dean Harold Koh joked after the panel was over, prompting laughs from the audience.

Law School Dean and panel moderator Harold Koh, as well as Jim Golen, Joe Ravitch, Michael McCann and Dr. Peter Jokl, speak at the Law School on Tuesday.
Aileen Agricola
Law School Dean and panel moderator Harold Koh, as well as Jim Golen, Joe Ravitch, Michael McCann and Dr. Peter Jokl, speak at the Law School on Tuesday.

While the talk largely centered on the legal and sociological implications of the Mitchell Report and steroid use, it also discussed related medical issues. Panelists, including Peter Jokl, chief of sports medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, focused especially on the advancing front of medical technology and the inability of legislation and regulation to keep up.

Jokl said performance-enhancing drugs can have short-term positive effects such as increased muscle mass, lowered heart rate and quicker reaction times. Negative effects include heart attacks, increased cholesterol, heightened aggression or “’roid raige,” liver tumors and diminished sexual function, he said.

The major problem in addressing steroid use is defining the meaning of the term “performance-enhancing,” Jokl said. There are numerous non-drug methods of performance enhancement, he said, and the drugs that many athletes currently use are undetectable and often have legitimate medical uses.

Current definitions identify Human Growth Hormone and anabolic steroids as “performance-enhancing” substances. Although the former is still undetectable in urine tests, which makes it an attractive option for illegal performance-enhancing, Jokl called these drugs “passé.”

He compared the injection of the substance erythropoietin with athletes’ training in high-altitude locations to increase their lung capacity. While the two methods of performance enhancement have the same effect, the former is illegal, while the latter is considered a natural advantage, he said.

But Jokl said the issue becomes more complex when considering such ambiguous treatments as low-pressure chambers that fool the body into thinking it is in a higher altitude. It is difficult to determine whether this is natural or artificial enhancement, he said.

And in the future, he said, there will be avenues of performance enhancement that are even more ambiguously ethical — and undetectable — such as elective surgery, gene manipulation and growth factors. Surgeries could be performed under the radar as part of necessary operations, he said, while in the future growth factors could be used to target and enhance specific muscle groups.

Part of the problem with curbing drug use, he said, is that many performance-enhancing drugs have legitimate medical uses. Anabolic steroids are used to increase muscle mass and improve the quality of life of AIDS and cancer patients, while HGH can be used to prevent atrophy after muscle operations.

In sports, even caffeine — beyond levels equivalent to that in two cups of coffee — and asthma medications are considered banned stimulants, Jokl said.

But Joe Ravitch LAW ’88, managing director in the investment-banking division of Goldman Sachs, said the Mitchell Report took too narrow a view of steroid abuse.

Ravitch called the Mitchell Report “utter hogwash,” criticizing it for being based on ex parte evidence and hearsay. He said the steroids issue affects a much larger portion of the American population than just Major League Baseball players.

“Baseball is really a sideshow,” he said.

The panelists pointed to the percentages of young people who take some form of anabolic steroids — 10 percent of high-school boys, according to Jokl — in support of Ravitch’s assertion. The panel did not address the use of steroids in college-level sports, although the NCAA has a strict policy of random drug testing, according to trainers at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Yale students have remained clean throughout these tests, Chris Pecora, director of sports medicine, said.

Richard Kaplan, head strength and conditioning trainer, said he thinks such testing is a deterrent to college use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Ryan Sakoda LAW ’10, who attended the panel, said the fact that the audience was composed primarily of law students prohibited Jokl from discussing medical issues in much depth. But he said the things Jokl did address, particularly genetic manipulation of muscle function, was captivating not just from an athletic perspective but from one of general medical interest.

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