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Steroid usage could be greater than realized

As professional baseball players face stricter drug testing guidelines, a New Mexico State University exercise physiologist says anabolic steroid usage is a larger problem than the public realizes.

Joseph Berning, a New Mexico State University exercise physiologist, says anabolic steroid usage is a larger problem than the public realizes. He is working on many research projects including the development of a new exercise physiology lab on campus.

"Professional baseball is in the spotlight right now, but this issue is much larger," said Joseph Berning, an assistant professor in the NMSU College of Education's Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Department. "Steroid usage is an issue in all sports and even beyond athletes. Many people take steroids to enhance their appearance."

Berning and colleagues Kent Adams and Bryant Stamford, both with the Health, Physical Education and Sports Studies Department at the University of Louisville, recently published an article, "Anabolic Steroid Usage in Athletics: Facts, Fiction and Public Relations," in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The article reviews anecdotal evidence of steroid usage, which according to Berning, suggests there is a widespread usage of anabolic steroids. This is a contrast to the scientific studies available that indicate usage is rare and no higher than 6 percent.

Conclusions from scientific studies suggest that anabolic steroid usage declines progressively from high school to college and beyond, but anecdotal evidence claims the opposite trend. Berning said in this clash between "hard" scientific data and "soft" anecdotal information, it is natural that professionals would gravitate toward scientifically based conclusions. But in the case of anabolic steroids, Berning and his colleagues question whether the testimony of those closest to the issue should be put aside as irrelevant.

"We really do not know what is going on out there and I don't know if we ever will because we live in a world where science gives us answers, but because of the complex issues surrounding steroid usage, we can't ignore anecdotal evidence," Berning said. "There is a challenge in trying to conduct research that would give a true picture of the issue because honest testimony is hard to achieve."

Berning, who is a former power lifter, said he could walk into any gym in this country and within a few hours find someone who was selling steroids, but as a scientist taking a survey he would probably face difficulties getting people to speak on the record.

"This issue is just not cut and dry," he said. "Scientists really need to step out of the picture and look at this issue holistically."

Berning said another part of the issue is the hypocritical society we live in.

"We want to be ethical and say 'no drugs,' but nobody wants to go to the Olympic Games and not see phenomenal performances," Berning said. "If steroids did not exist, the same athletes would still be on top of their game, they just would not be doing it as hard or as fast as they can with the assistance of the steroids."

Compounding the problem is the development of new designer anabolic steroids that are designed to escape detection, helping athletes stay a step ahead of authorities, which emphasizes the lengths to which athletes will go and the risks they will take to gain an edge, Berning said.

"The ominous clouds that hang over the future of athletics underscore the need for more research in this area and exploration of new, creative and unique approaches to research," Berning said. "This review underscores the valuable role of anecdotal evidence provided by insiders that is neither quantifiable nor verifiable, and yet, without it, the issue of anabolic steroid usage among athletes likely would be glossed over as an insignificant concern."

Pointing to the recent indictments by the Justice Department against individuals involved in the development of the new designer steroid, and also against the personal trainer of professional baseball superstar Barry Bonds, Berning and his colleagues conclude their review by suggesting that if athletes cannot police themselves, law-enforcement groups may step in.

"Once the law puts the squeeze on these individuals, those turning state's evidence could blow the lid off and reveal under oath in depth what has really been going on," Berning said.