Commentary : In This Game, He Needles at All Costs

Washington Post

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?


Do you take anabolic steroids?



Since when have you been taking them?

Since 1981. My writing coach gave them to me.


It’s pretty clear that steroids are worth approximately one full paragraph at the highest levels of column writing, and my coach told me I could set up my word processor at the same table with all the other columnists--or I could start one paragraph behind them.

And you took your coach to be implying that the world-class columnists took steroids?

Absolutely. Red Smith took steroids. You didn’t know that?


Yes, Red and Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young. They’re dead so I can say that; they can’t sue me for libel.


Most live columnists take them. I won’t name names, but I’ll give you a hint: The columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize last year--he takes steroids. Oh, sure. You think he ever wrote that well before? Steroids helped him with his adverbs. Before steroids, he couldn’t use the word incorrigibly in a sentence.

Salman Rushdie takes steroids, too. I’m naming him because I’m not scared of a lawsuit. You think he’s going to show up in open court to take me on?

You took steroids to improve your writing?

My writing, my stamina and to lengthen my career. With athletes, the legs go first. With columnists, it’s the fingertips from all that typing. Steroids are performance enhancing. They develop the muscles in the tips of your fingers.


And did the steroids help?

Tremendously. I brought a chart to show you comparisons of my work before and after I started using steroids. You’ll notice how much more facile I became with complex sentences, hyperbole and gerunds--especially gerunds--because of the steroids.

Your coach gave you steroids?



But isn’t he the same coach who steadfastly denied you took steroids?

Yes, the same. You have to admire his consistency. He denied I took them when I won the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild award. He denied I took them when I won the Associated Press Sports Editors award. And he denied I took them when I won the Page One award, even though by then it was obvious I was on steroids.

I had all the telltale signs: My punctuation was aggressive, my verbs were honed, my syntax was crisp. And I had no desire for sex. That’s a drawback, I’ll concede, but you have to sacrifice for your art.

Who else gave you steroids?


My doctor in the Caribbean.

Where did he get his degree?

Baby Doc Medical School.

Isn’t he the doctor who steadfastly denied he gave you steroids?


Yes. He and I used to inject each other. I was taking a specific steroid to improve my metaphors, he was taking Gatorade. Do you remember the day when the rumors first started, and I steadfastly denied I ever took steroids? I said if I took them, it was unknowingly--someone must have spiked my sarsaparilla with them.


That day I took 93 of them.

You lied?


Sure. Didn’t everybody?

Is there anyone else who encouraged you to take steroids?

Newspapers, television networks, corporations who sponsor the competitions and the United States Olympic Writers Committee.

Please enlighten us.


A few years ago, the USOWC told columnists they could submit to testing to determine the “clearance times” of any banned substances they had used. This let all of us go in and, in a nonpunitive way, check how long it took for steroids to pass through our system undetected.

You never saw such a line in your life. I thought the USOWC was giving away courtesy cars. All the writers who were on steroids--and some of their editors--went in and found out exactly how much of a window they had to use steroids and still beat the test! It was like hiring your own personal chemist. To this day, my favorite charity is Upjohn.

You mentioned TV, newspapers and corporations?

Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t do this if there was no money in it; you don’t see ice fishermen taking steroids. Newspapers and TV cover my events, and make me famous if I win. Then I get to endorse things, which makes me rich. I have a TV show on PBS about grammar, my NPR gig, a summer camp for poets. I endorse word processors. I get appearance fees at bookstores. God bless Peter Ueberroth. He got corporations to sponsor the Writers Olympics.


Granted, I wouldn’t buy a Big Gulp myself--I wouldn’t even talk to anyone who stopped at a 7-Eleven for anything more than change for the pay phone--but thank heaven for 7-Eleven building that Writerdome for the national columnist finals.

But what about the side effects of steroids?

You mean like maybe I could die?

For starters.


Yeah, well, death’s bad, I guess. But it couldn’t be worse than finishing fourth in the Best Sports Stories contest.

You realize that by telling us all this, you won’t be able to compete in the Writers Olympics, that you’ll be barred for the next four years?

Yes. And that kills me, because I’ll be past my prime by the time the next Olympics comes along. I’ll have lost some speed off my similes, and I won’t be able to make the transition from oxymoron to subtle irony. It’s a young man’s game, columnizing.

What will you do?


Teach school. Write a book. Go on “Geraldo.” Maybe do some consulting for the pharmaceutical industry.

In conclusion, is there anything you’d like to say to the columnists of America?

Just win, baby.