A South Carolina Scandal : Former Gamecock Football Player Chaikin Tries to Regroup After Disclosing Steroid Use
Tommy Chaikin no longer seeks to alter his person by artificial means. In retrospect, he views his experiment with steroids as the height of stupidity. He gained 50 pounds of muscle, became a starting defensive end for South Carolina, and ended up in a state of mental and physical collapse and legal controversy.
He says he knows now what a self-obsessed act of gall it was, to attempt to redefine his essential matter and muscle. “I was an arrogant . . .,” he said.
Chaikin, who attended Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., is doing all right now, planting flowers and shrubs in suburban Maryland. He isn’t holding a pistol to his chin, and his blood pressure isn’t so high he can feel it in the roof of his mouth. And he isn’t going to be indicted for criminal offenses in South Carolina. He has been in a glory-drenched football uniform for the Gamecocks, he has been in Sports Illustrated, and he has been in a grand-jury room, and now he would just as soon be quiet.
He weighs 215 pounds, compared to the hulking 265 he was at one point when he took anabolic steroids, and he lives in Bethesda, where he is starting his own landscaping company. He does not stay in touch with his former teammates or coaches at South Carolina.
The school is still coping with the charges and publicity brought by Chaikin in a first-person story written in Sports Illustrated last October that paid him $4,500. In the piece, he alleged that, at one point, half the team used steroids. The university was further devastated by the death of football coach Joe Morrison from a heart attack on Feb. 5, in the midst of investigations into steroid use in the program partly instigated by Chaikin’s expose.
Chaikin’s foray into steroids is better characterized as a swan dive. Over three years from 1984 to 1987, he claims to have used steroids from a jumble of needles and bottles with labels in foreign languages he never bothered to read, German or Spanish or no label at all, and sometimes mixed together. He took human growth hormone and monkey hormones, testosterone, Dianabol, Anadrol, Parabolin, Deca-Durabolin.
“Bury me massive or don’t bury me at all,” he and his fellow users would say.
His critics at South Carolina speculate that he disclosed his problems either for profit, or to take revenge on coaches he felt abused him and ignored his illness. He said he decided to talk partly because he was hoping to interest publishers in a book deal, but also because he wanted to prevent use among other athletes.
“It was to show that college football has become a joke,” he said. “A freak show.”
But the impact was beyond anything Chaikin expected. He accused coaches of shrugging at or even encouraging steroid use, and said that by his junior year, “about 50 of 100 guys on the team were using steroids.” Those allegations came six months after South Carolina had fired Athletic Director Bob Marcum for shortcomings found in the athletic department’s drug-testing program, and brought a new round of inquiries and controversy.
The 5th Circuit solicitor in Columbia, S.C., James Anders, threatened to indict Chaikin on criminal charges for his admissions in the article, in which he also told of having distributed steroids and of experiences with LSD and cocaine. A previous investigation into steroid distribution and production had been conducted in the area by the State Law Enforcement Division, but with Chaikin’s article it was expanded into a federal inquiry. The U.S. attorney, Dinton Lide, took over the probe, which is continuing. Lide could not be reached for comment.
Chaikin, meanwhile, has received hate mail and threatening phone calls. One caller told him, “We can make you disappear.” The 6-foot-1 former defensive end is not a hero in South Carolina. Athletic Director King Dixon said that Chaikin’s allegations are unproven, possibly exaggerated, and that they “defamed” the school. According to Dixon, the State Law Enforcement Division found only “somewhat” of a steroid problem at South Carolina two or three years ago. He said that with the firing of Marcum, a new and improved drug-testing program had already been put in place before Chaikin’s article.
A federal grand jury is still hearing evidence, but Dixon said he believes the focus is now oriented toward seeking out large distributors in the state and nearby areas. He said the grand jury should conclude next month, with any indictments to come in May or June, but he does not anticipate any involving the school.
“That article was like a 2,000-pound bomb going off,” Dixon said. “It was devastating to South Carolina. It’s tainted us, it’s had a tremendous adverse effect as far as what other people think of us. We’re still trying to assess the damage. We’ve had intense negative publicity. There’s been a full-fledged investigation of allegations that are still unfounded. And we’ve gotten a clean bill of health.”
Chaikin admits to some margin of error in what he said he witnessed at Columbia: “There were certain figures in the article, they weren’t inaccurate, but they were estimates. I didn’t go down a list.” He also says, however, “I didn’t exaggerate. It was widespread.”
He testified to the veracity of his article before the grand jury last month, after taking two polygraph tests and receiving a letter of immunity from Anders. The prosecutor confirmed he was seriously considering filing criminal charges, until Chaikin pledged his cooperation.
“He admitted to criminal acts,” Anders said. “He was not well advised in the publication of that article.”
Sports Illustrated paid his legal fees, which Managing Editor Mark Mulvoy said were about $20,000. Anders said the magazine could be accused of a conflict of interest in advising Chaikin legally, but Mulvoy said the player was informed of all the dangers in publishing his story, including criminal charges.
“He was aware of the risk,” Mulvoy said. “He knew there was the possibility of someone taking action against him. I came away with great admiration for him, to stand up and be counted that way.”
If he had to do it again, Chaikin said, he would not have implicated friends and coaches.
“I would have been more discreet, and protected some people I cared about,” he said. “The purpose of the article was not to get people in trouble. I just wanted them to recognize a problem. Unfortunately, they thought I was pointing fingers.”
He doubts many of his former friends and teammates care to speak to him. “It’s like I broke an internal oath,” he said.
Chaikin specifically named some teammates who used steroids, and wrote that defensive line coach Jim Washburn ignored evidence of widespread use. He implied that Morrison did little to prevent it, other than telling him once to stop. Some of those he named, including Washburn, have been called to testify before the grand jury.
Washburn, an assistant at Purdue, becomes obviously distraught when the subject is raised. He flatly denied Chaikin’s allegations, and said he is “plenty bitter” about the controversy. He said remarks he made in practices to encourage players to work harder in the weight room were misinterpreted or taken out of context by Chaikin.
“I’ve never done anything to hurt players or kids intentionally,” Washburn said, his voice trembling. “I’ve tried to do what’s right, and coach the way I’d want my sons to be coached. . . . I never told them directly or indirectly to use steroids. . . . It was a nightmare. I’m dumbfounded by it. It was just an ugly chapter for me, for Tommy Chaikin, and for the team. We had a bunch of great kids, I thought. No different from the average college kids.”
Washburn was hired and defended by Coach Fred Akers at Purdue at the same time he was entangled with the grand jury, in which his role now appears to be over.
Said Washburn: “I just want to do my job and get it behind me. I just want to be a football coach.” He said he has met with every player he will be coaching and, “I let them know how I feel about street drugs and drinking and steroids right off the bat. That’s one thing I’ve learned.”
Chaikin’s attorney, Mendel Davis, is a longtime South Carolina fan who acknowledged that Chaikin is viewed there with “mixed emotions.” But he said more recently the hostility has abated, as the import of Chaikin’s story has become more apparent. “I think it’s a story that needed to be told,” Davis said. “People are using these things to make themselves something they aren’t.”
The death of Morrison, however, further complicated the emotions of those involved. The coach had a history of heart problems and was a heavy smoker, but there are those who resent Chaikin for creating a stressful situation. Chaikin maintains that the steroid problem was such that it was bound to become apparent eventually, however, and that Morrison’s health was precarious long before his expose.
“I don’t feel I had anything to do with it,” Chaikin said. “I’m not going to put myself through that.”
Chaikin portrays a program that was intent on gaining some consistency in the top 20 rankings, one operated by players and coaches who were perhaps overzealous. His description of life on a team trying to climb to the upper echelon of national college football presents some insight into the problems confronting National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division I players.
Steroid use, he said, was a vicious cycle perpetuated by players such as himself, fearful they could not make the transition from high school to college hero, and desperate for the prestige it represented. He watched younger players come in after him and go through the same process; finding themselves unable to compete, they relaxed their principles.
“In my case, I was a small lineman,” he said. “So I could either spend time on the bench, or . . . Look, I worked extremely hard to get the scholarship. You’ll go to any length. You lose perspective on right and wrong. It’s what drives anyone to success. It’s a greedy thing.”
He entered South Carolina as a freshman in 1983 expecting to be one of the stronger members of the team, but instead was pushed around and subsequently redshirted. He decided to use steroids by the spring of his freshman year, and characterized his increasing use as a psychological addiction.
It ultimately resulted in violent mood swings and anxiety attacks, and he was unable to complete his final season. He called his reaction partly emotional, brought on by stress, and partly chemical. Documented side effects of steroid use are mood alteration and depression, in addition to the possibilities that they may also lead to heart and liver problems. None of that, however, occurred to Chaikin more than fleetingly when he first took them.
“It becomes an ego thing,” he said. “You think you become godlike, invincible. Actually, you become more fragile because of what it’s built on. I finally came to the realization that it was pointless, worthless. I can’t stand to be around those people anymore. I mean, they get obsessed, it’s ridiculous, their egos get so bloated. It changes you, it makes you an ego monster.”
Whether Chaikin has accomplished his stated purpose from the article remains to be seen. He said he has received numbers of letters from high school athletes claiming to be influenced.
“I think I helped more people than I hurt,” he said. “When you expose something like that, certain people are going to be uprooted.”
But his high school coach at Whitman, Rich Cameron, is not as sure the problem is being curbed. He posts anti-steroid literature on the bulletin board constantly, but has little confidence in the ability of players who join major programs to resist wrong influences.
In the smaller context, those involved in the Chaikin affair are concerned with trying to heal and move on. At South Carolina, a state-of-the-art drug-testing program has been instituted, and Dixon has hired a new head coach, Sparky Woods from Appalachian State. Dixon has also employed a marketing firm for advice on how to restore the school’s image.