As the baseball season comes to a close and football mania ratchets up, I can’t stop thinking about a Frontline documentary and an ABC news story that shared the common denominator elements of sports, money, and societal values. It’s a toxic brew that is impacting the health of athletes from the gloried model of the pros, trickling all the way down to teen athletes—and younger. It raises a whole lot of questions.
In “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” the narrative tracks the impact of football on the human brain from the big dollar “Pro” stakes to the college and youth leagues. The investigative piece, “The Lure of Speed and Strength: Illegal Steroids Available Overseas,” profiled how Americans are getting their hands on unregulated steroids via the Internet, for the purpose of enhancing athletic performance and replicating physical standards promoted in the media and popular culture.
Ironically, the injuries suffered as a result of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and anabolic steroid use have parallels and similarities. These include behavioral and psychological ramifications from aggressive outbursts to mood swings. For the linebacker Junior Seau and an aspiring teen baseball player, Taylor Hooton, both of their personal stories ended in suicide.
Taylor’s father, Don Hooton, became proactive in the steroid abuse space after learning that his son’s death and erratic demeanor was tied to the use of steroids. He founded the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which serves as a clearinghouse for information, and an education portal for young people to learn about the dangers of steroid use.
The site disseminates demographic stats about steroid abuse in the 12 to 19 year old age bracket. The average age for first time users is 15. A large percentage (40 percent) of high school seniors relate that obtaining these drugs is easy. Teen girls are the most rapidly growing user group. Side effects of steroid use include increased aggression, irritability, and depression. Withdrawal from usage without proper medical supervision can exacerbate these symptoms.
The drill down of the ABC report was the findings about online availability of steroid products, physical enhancement drugs (PED), and human growth hormone (HGH) produced overseas, with no oversight or regulation. The raw materials predominately come from China. Footage of factory production showed extremely unsanitary facilities. Tests on the products ordered and received by the ABC team evidenced the presence of heavy metals—including lead and arsenic—and a variety of fillers from cooking oil to horse urine.
An overwhelming 97 percent of online “pharmacies” operate illegally, allowing anyone—including minors—to order what is categorized by the U.S. government as a controlled substance. A Google search for “Steroids Online Without a Prescription” brought up over 8 million results. On YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), there were a plethora of videos responding to the search. I also found a five-minute posting by a person in the bodybuilding arena alerting others to the fact that YouTube was removing videos and replacing them with the notice “Content Inappropriate.” His advice was, “Change your tags up. It’s all in the tags.”
With 1.5 million teens using steroids, and the visibility of the ABC report, there has been pushback and questions about the role of search engines and the Internet functioning as a conduit to obtaining drugs online without prescriptions. In addition, the profit being derived from the Google AdSense program has been pointed to.
Hooton unequivocally believes that Google and YouTube bear responsibility for the availability of sites found via their search engines. (A quick check of Yahoo! showed they had over one millions hits for “Steroids online without prescription” and a list of sidebar ads). Google has responded to queries stating that the issue of “free speech” was a determining factor. Their stance has been to kick the can down the road to the purview of the legal system—through the involvement of the courts and legislation. Google maintains that it is not up to them to determine what should be “censored.”
Jim Hood, the Attorney General of Mississippi and co-chairman of the intellectual property committee for the National Association of Attorneys General, has plenty to say on the subject. He has been spearheading efforts to have Google undertake a real strategy to deal with the activities of pharmacies online. (Google paid $500 million to the federal government in 2011 to settle claims over ads sold to pharmacies that were illegally shipping drugs into the United States). In a USA Today article, Hood was reported commenting, “Google is putting consumers at risk and facilitating wrongdoing, all while profiting handsomely from illegal behavior.” Also noted in the account was a report released by the Digital Citizens Alliance, looking into the issue of steroid abuse. Their Executive Director, Tom Galvin, responded to Google’s claims of “fighting the problem,” suggesting that Google’s assertions were disingenuous. Galvin said, “Google has some of the most incredible minds in the world…They certainly have the analytics capabilities to know about these videos.” There appears to be plenty of culpability to go around. Most sites accept PayPal or credit cards (the latter frequently using a third party such as Western Union).
It’s going to take a concerted effort to untangle the threads of sports culture, health, safety, and the Internet. Not everyone is going to agree on what the core issues are and what should be done. Winning and profits can’t always be the bottom line.
It’s time for a robust conversation.
Photo: Courtesy of Don Hooton