Steroids' Appeal Reaches Beyond Pro Athletes

The deaths of pro wrestler Chris Benoit and his family have investigators looking into whether steroids played a role in the tragedy. In this week's Behind Closed Doors, Roy Johnson, editor of Men's Fitness magazine, discusses why steroid use is on the rise.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Why one sportswriter allows himself one last fan crush.

But first, it's time for our weekly Behind Closed Doors segment, where we talk about sensitive topics in the news. Today, pro-wrestler Chris Benoit's death has turned the spotlight once again on steroids.

Benoit is believed to have murdered his wife and his son before committing suicide a little over a week ago. Police found anabolic steroids in his home, leading to speculation they may have been a factor in the tragedy.

Some experts believe steroids cause paranoia, depression and violent outbursts known as roid rage.

There's been a lot of talk about the use of steroids and other banned substances by athletes. Today, we also want to talk about their use by weekend warriors, kids and men who are not in professional sports.

With us now to talk about that is Roy Johnson. He's the new editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness magazine. He joins us from the NPR bureau in New York. Welcome, Roy.

Mr. ROY JOHNSON (Editor-in-chief, Men's Fitness magazine): Thank you, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: Great. And first of all, congratulations on the new post and on the 20TH anniversary of the magazine.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you. It's been a great challenge and a great opportunity for me. We look forward to 20 more years.

MARTIN: So, let's talk about the current issue. There's a piece about steroid abuse in baseball. And, of course, there has been so much talk about Barry Bonds, the baseball star who's been close to surpassing Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. He's also been dogged for years by allegations of steroid use. The article makes the case that steroids are here to stay. Do you think that's true?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think, certainly, the use of performance-enhancing drugs -not just in baseball, but in many sports - is not going to disappear when Barry Bonds disappears.

MARTIN: Now, steroids do have appropriate medical uses, right? So what exactly - what kind of use is it that is of concern that we're talking about with athletes?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the first concern is that many of them - many of the athletes and non-athletes who are using steroids are using them illegally. They are banned in most parts of the country. The other thing is the - certainly the aftereffects and the medical and physical impact of usage, particularly uncontrolled usage and usage by people who aren't informed. Now, the benefit…

MARTIN: Wait a minute, when you say they're banned - let me just clarify here. They're banned if you're not using them under medical supervision to addressing medical problems.

Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. JOHNSON: And in many cases, they're banned just to even distribute across state lines.

So - but the people who are looking to use them are certainly looking for the benefits. And the benefit is pretty clear. It enables you to get bigger. I mean, we live in a very vain society, a very - a culture where beauty and fitness are at the top of - almost everyone's list, but most people don't want to work to get there.

They want to take the shortcut, and the shortcut is often performance-enhancing drugs or, particularly, steroids, because they give you the opportunity to recover from hard work, and in many cases, injury, quicker. So the quicker I can recover, the more I can work out, the bigger I get, the more beautiful I get, the fitter I get, the better I am able to get the girl, so to speak. So, you know, people who are looking for shortcuts typically look for steroids.

MARTIN: The article makes the case that just steroid use is fairly widespread among professional athletes. At least, they just perfected the art of getting away with it. So I'd like to ask about the non-athletes, you know, the weekend warriors. Has that news taken hold?

Mr. JOHNSON: Among people who are inclined to want to take shortcuts, steroid use has been prevalent for some time, and that is not just people who might be just into bodybuilding and look - who just want to look good in the gym or on the beach. But I've been really troubled by the increasing usage among young people, particularly young athletes, young football players, people who want to get bigger, but maybe their bodies aren't quite ready to get big at this particular time but - so they look to do what they can, and in many cases, it's steroids that allow them to get in the gym and get bigger faster.

MARTIN: You really think it's aesthetics or vanity or cosmetics?

Mr. JOHNSON: Unfortunately, it is vanity. Now, in many cases, for people who are athletes, they want to try to perform better, but let's face it, most of us are not professional athletes. We may be competitive, but our livelihood is not dependent on how far we can hit a ball or how fast we can throw a ball. So the only other reason to do this is simply to look good, and in many cases, that's sad.

MARTIN: And I have to say, my spam folder is continually filled up with these unsolicited pitches for drugs of all sorts, steroids being among them. So I guess what I'm hearing you say is that market could not just be professional athletes, there would not be that there is for these performance-enhancing drugs to be sold over the Internet if the market was solely professional athletes, because they would only be…

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, there would be no market because there are so few of them who are professional athletes.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: So clearly this is a huge market. In 1991, a study showed that there were over a million steroid users in the United States then. So that's 25 years ago.

MARTIN: We're used to thinking of women being the people who are willing to jeopardize their health or, you know, comfort for the sake of looking good. Do you think that men feel increasing pressure to maintain their physical attractiveness? Because I guess we're just used to thinking of it as not being as important to men.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, men have hidden that for quite a while, haven't we? We've done a good job of making you think that we're not as vain as you are. But oh, Michel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: Wake up to the fact that men like to look in the mirror just as much as women do. And, you know, that's why there are gyms. I mean, men have been going to the gym for years. They've been spending more and more money on clothes. I mean, the metrosexual era of a few years ago, while it is passed to a certain degree - grooming, and many things that were not considered part of the male mystique is certainly now just part of the general lifestyle.

I mean, not just about getting bigger, but it's about nutrition, more men look at spiritual ways to live a fitter lifestyle. So I think it is no all vanity. I think it is taking advantage of what opportunities there are, working out and doing everything you need to do live a fit lifestyle.

MARTIN: The health risks of using steroids without medical supervision are very well documented. Do you think that this latest - this tragic death of the pro wrestler will do anything, or do you have any sense of whether these kinds of stories would surface periodically? Do you think these kinds of stories will have any impact?

Mr. JOHNSON: I really wish I could sit here, Michel, and tell you that Benoit's death would change someone's mind. People have suffered major consequences because of usage of - whether it's steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs or any other chemical. Whether it's alcohol or driving without a seatbelt, and you think, will someone learn from that? And yet, we always will see another case of someone suffering the same consequence.

So I hope that more and more - particularly young people - see that the upside is totally outweighed by the side effects, and where I think it is being beneficial is with really, really young people.

I have a 10-year-old son, and he and his peers are very clear about the fact that using steroids is cheating. Now they have a very simplistic way of looking at it, but if we are going to at least raise one generation that understands that there's no shortcuts to get what you want, and maybe they come up and grow up understanding that steroids is not the way to look better and to feel better and to just, you know, get bigger, then maybe, maybe this would have had some effect.

MARTIN: You know what I don't get is, you going to send your money to some guy over the mail who you don't know, who could be sending you maple syrup for all you know. Are you going to shoot yourself up with that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Or worse.

MARTIN: …I mean, like, come on. I just don't ooh - you know what I mean? I don't get it.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Especially in this era, when you just really don't know what you're putting in your body. But, Michel, there's always someone out there. And there are a lot of them who just would take - would do anything to try to reach their goal without putting in the work and the effort to get there - so it's a shortcut. You know, as much as you and will sit here and scratch our heads over why anyone would do this, there's somebody typing there on their computer keyboard right now trying to find their next score.

MARTIN: Roy Johnson is the new editor in chief of Men's Fitness magazine. The latest issue featuring Tiger Woods' workout secrets, is on newsstands now. Roy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

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