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Gov. Commits an Error in Misunderstanding Steroid Issue

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may know more about bodybuilding than anyone. He certainly knows about steroids as a former user. But he doesn’t seem to know squat about baseball.

Not that a governor needs to know first base from a rosin bag. But he should know something about the impact of steroids on baseball if he’s going to comment on it to make a larger point.

His larger point apparently is that though steroids may be harmful to individuals, they have no significant impact on sporting outcomes. Therefore, he seems to believe, bulking up with steroids isn’t like serious cheating.

He comes across as being only mildly motivated to fight steroids and defensive, if not supportive, of other performance-enhancing drugs. These include dietary supplements, although some contain substances banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

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It’s a window into the mind-set of a governor who last fall vetoed a bill by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) that would have created a list of substances forbidden for high school athletes, modeled after the NCAA ban list. Coaches also would have been required to undergo training about the dangers of steroids and other performance enhancers.

In vetoing the bill, Schwarzenegger noted that steroids already were illegal and said the measure’s definition of performance-enhancing, dietary supplements was “unclear, open-ended and difficult to interpret.” He encouraged the Legislature to work with him “in developing a cost-effective way” to train coaches about “the harmful effects of steroids” -- but not supplements.

Schwarzenegger, Speier notes, is an editor of two bodybuilding magazines crammed with ads for supplements.

The senator has reintroduced her bill. She cites studies indicating that 3% of current California high school athletes have used steroids and that 11% of boys and 5% of girls report taking some performance-enhancing drugs. Nationally, says Blue Cross-Blue Shield, 1.1 million high school teens take “potentially dangerous performance-enhancing supplements and drugs.”

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On the one hand, Schwarzenegger has firsthand knowledge about steroids. As a champion bodybuilder, he used steroids under a doctor’s supervision when they were not illegal, the seven-time Mr. Olympia says.

“I have no regrets about it,” he recently told ABC. “Because at the time, it was something new that came on the market.... But I would strongly recommend that people do not take drugs.”

On the other hand, Schwarzenegger seems to have little knowledge about the steroid topic of the day: the drugs’ damaging impact on America’s “national pastime,” baseball. And this raises questions about his credibility across the whole public policy area of performance-enhancing drugs.

Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” last week, Schwarzenegger was asked whether it’s fair for a ballplayer to hold home-run records if he belted the balls while on steroids.

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“Well, I think it has nothing to do with that,” Schwarzenegger answered, “because I think that if you take the steroids away, you will still have the same winners.... The same was in bodybuilding. All it does is for everyone to reduce the performance.”

But bodybuilding isn’t baseball. A few days later, I asked the governor to elaborate.

“The bottom line is those drugs -- growth hormones, steroids -- do not produce champions,” he said. “If you take it away from everybody, you would still have the same winner....

“What you have to understand is, it adds such a small percentage to your performance. It does not make a loser into a winner. It does not make a guy who’s running 10.2 in the 100-meter dash into a 9.9 runner. [I’ve] seen guys who have lifted 500 pounds, then took some stuff and lifted 520. But it didn’t take a guy who lifted 200 pounds to 500.”

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And baseball?

“I would say 99% of those sports is skills. It’s the hand-eye coordination that you would not get from drugs. You maybe could run a little faster or hit faster, but the accuracy and all those things, the way I see it in baseball, has to do with the hand-eye coordination.”

Baseball definitely is about hand-eye coordination. But it’s also a game of inches, as are many sports. A juiced player who can gain an extra 2 mph on his fastball, or a half step running down to first, or 10 feet on his long ball can set records and win team championships.

The celebrated home-run fetes of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and other sluggers in recent years now are under a cloud because of suspected steroid use, tainting Major League Baseball’s image and sending a mixed message to starry-eyed kids. Too many young athletes may conclude that getting juiced is worth the health risk if it means a shot at the big leagues.

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And listening to the governor, taking drugs doesn’t sound like real cheating. Drugs don’t change winners. And that, of course, is pure poppycock. Look up the testimony of current and former ballplayers at last week’s congressional hearing.

Schwarzenegger equates performance-enhancing drugs to technological advances in athletic equipment -- pole vault sticks, running tracks. “It enhances their performance. It gives the extra edge to break records,” he says. “Is that fair?”

Yes, because all competitors can use the same equipment. But not all are using performance-enhancing drugs. Anyway, baseball equipment hasn’t changed all that much.

Schwarzenegger should sign legislation attacking dangerous drug use by high school athletes.

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And the governor should learn what he doesn’t know before talking about it to make a point. Then when he’s pitch- ing a policy -- whether it’s on spending, taxes, education or sports -- he’s more apt to throw strikes.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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