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The Most-Effective Performance-Enhancing Drug Will Never Be Banned


It was a rare occurrence when Nick Calathes of the Memphis Grizzlies was suspended for 20 games, for testing positive for Tamoxifen, a drug some steroid users have been known to use as a masking agent. First of all, let's point out the obvious- if Nick Calathes is juicing, it's not working. When I sat on the negotiating committee for the NBA Players and had specific meetings about what substances should be banned, I was adamant that anything NBA players could purchase legally should not be banned.

NBA players are athletes, not doctors. As such, they should be able to use anything they can buy legally at their local GNC. Banning a wide variety of legal substances like Tamoxifen, just because the IOC, NCAA or Major League Baseball did the same in their policies is a major mistake and Nick Calathes is paying the consequences. While there may be a few issues with NBA players using illegal recreational drugs, looking back at the number of players suspended for using non-recreational drugs, you'll find what looks like a comedy of errors, with the latest act being the Calathes suspension.

Remember when 6'2, 195-pound Lindsey Hunter was suspended back in 2007 for accidentally taking his wife's diet pills, which contained phentermine? Has Lindsey Hunter's weight ballooned out of control since he retired? No. Was he setting the NBA on fire when he was taking diet pills in 2007? No. Was he doing anything he could to cling to a roster spot in 2007? No.

The fact is, performance-enhancing drug use is not and never has been a major issue (or even a minor issue) in the NBA. However, this seems like an appropriate time to re-visit the subject of drug-testing in professional sports and what is banned and what is legal.  The fact is, the biggest, most-effective performance-enhancing drug in pro sports is the anti-inflammatory. These drugs will never be banned, although using them doesn't come without serious risks.

Whether it's prescription or over the counter, these drugs are as common in the major pro sports as socks- everyone has them, everyone uses them.  The problem is the long-term health risks associated with excessive use of these drugs. Anyone who has spent time in a pro sports locker room knows these drugs are used excessively.

It was not uncommon for my NBA teammates to haul around Sam's Club-sized bottles of Ibuprofen or Advil, often taking three or four before games and practices and several more afterwards and throughout the day.  That is how some guys survive and keep their bodies moving.  In some ways, anti-inflammatories aren't just performance-enhancing, they are performance-enabling.

Men's Journal ran a story back in 2012 on the recent string of suicides amongst the NHL's enforcers.  Real Sports has also covered this same topic and both have drawn attention to the perfect storm of factors, both physical and mental, that literally put these players' lives in jeopardy.  In the MJ article, former NHL enforcer, Ian Laperriere, is quoted as saying, "Today the biggest problem [in the NHL], which isn't talked about is pills...Show me a tough guy and I'll show you someone who pops pills."

Whether these pills are simple anti-inflammatories or outright pain-killers, the goal is to remove the element of pain from the equation long enough to allow an athlete to perform.  When I played in the NBA, both Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliot dealt with serious, life-threatening kidney issues.  This scared many NBA players off these drugs entirely or at least significantly reduced the amounts many were taking. With Mourning and Elliot long out of the league, does that concern still exist amongst current players?

Professional and amateur sports alike want to be perceived as taking a hard-line stance against performance-enhancing drugs and they will go to great and sometimes unnecessary lengths to prove to everyone how strong their drug policies are.  However, if push came to shove, none would ever ban the use of these anti-inflammatories, because they wouldn't be able to field teams without them.

Mourning & Elliot were somewhat unique in that most athletes won't begin to deal with the effects of long-term anti-inflammatory use until they are retired from competitive sports, which puts the issue out of sight and out of mind for everyone but the athletes themselves.  The media likes to sensationalize drug test stories like Calathes or Ryan Braun, but those who proclaim to push for the truth for the well-being of all athletes and the sport are probably the most hypocritical.

Excessive use of anti-inflammatories and other pain killers can have far worse long-term consequences for athletes, but no one will champion that cause, because the results would be too devastating for everyone but the athletes.