February 25, 2003

Drug Use Causes Weighty Problem

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A week has passed since Orioles prospect Steve Bechler died of multiple organ failure after suffering from heat stroke during a spring training workout. Bechler, 23, had been taking a diet pill containing ephedra, a powerful over-the-counter supplement that supposedly aids weight loss by speeding up the body’s metabolism and suppressing the appetite. A byproduct of this is dehydration.

Producers of ephedra-based products carefully warn consumers about the dangers of the substance, but its use remains rampant among athletes. These dangers are amplified when more ephedra is taken than recommended, something Bechler had been doing. And from all indications, ephedra was a major contributor to his death.

Yet despite the known dangers, ephedra — which is banned by the NFL, NCAA and IOC — remains legal and is permitted for use by Major League Baseball players.

During talks last summer preceding the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, baseball owners proposed a ban on and testing for ephedra, among other supplements that can potentially endanger one’s health. However, the Players Association staunchly opposed a ban, citing the legality of this and other supplements and the players’ right to privacy.

The union felt so strongly about this issue that it became a major sticking point in the negotiations. Last week, Gene Orza, the general counsel of the Players Association indicated that had the owners not relented on the issue of testing, the agreement might not have been completed.

It is abundantly clear that the Players Association has completely missed the boat on this issue. The primary responsibility of any union is to protect and promote the welfare of its members. By so strongly opposing a ban on these dangerous supplements, anabolic steroids, and illegal drugs, the Players Association is failing in that responsibility and doing its members a grave disservice.

An individual’s right to privacy is one thing, but cases do exist in which an individual’s and a society’s right to life outweighs one’s right to privacy. Sometimes, it is necessary to protect people from themselves. That’s why there are such things as illegal drugs.

And that’s why Major League Baseball and the Players Association need to agree on a ban on dangerous substances such as ephedra. Education about the potential harm of these substances, as union head Donald Fehr advocates, can only go so far.

Even if one is well aware of the risks, circumstances such as the one that Bechler was in may lead to the use of such a product. Bechler was severely out of shape and needed to lose a lot of weight in a short period of time. So he used an ephedra-containing product that ultimately contributed to his death. It is part of the competitive nature of a professional athlete to do whatever necessary to improve one’s performance, even if that means compromising one’s health. Yes, baseball players are adults responsible for what they do to themselves, but a little help will not hurt.

While it would be na