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Taking one for the team


People rip Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield for allegedly cheating by using performance-enhancing drugs. But I think they've got it all wrong. If that's what they did, then those guys are warriors. They're doing whatever it takes to go out there and compete. We should be grateful.

            They're no different than Buffalo Bills running back Travis Henry, who broke his leg against Houston last November. Many players would be sidelined if that happened to them.

            Not Henry. The trainer shot him up with a local anesthetic, and he went back in the ring like a fighter. He gained 149 yards, his fifth-best career rushing performance. And you know what else? He never sat out a game to heal. He rushed for a career-high 169 yards just three weeks later. He gutted it out. He was heroic and inspiring, like Rocky Balboa.

            Imagine the sacrifice. One bad hit and he might have been permanently crippled. Teammate Antoine Winfield questioned Henry's wisdom in risking his career by playing with the injury. But Henry stared down the barrel of a gun and battled. He's no wuss. He's tough. That's what it's all about: overcoming obstacles and making plays.

People want personal sacrifice from athletes. For years, they praised and admired Rams Hall-of-Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood for playing on a broken leg during Super Bowl XIV in 1980.

            Yet, people don't see it the same way with athletes who risk their lives by taking performance-enhancing drugs. They're personally sacrificing too, except they're taking the ultimate risk, agreeing to possibly endure the pain of dying afterward just to achieve success now.

            Could anything be more heroic than that? We should be exalting those athletes, not calling them out.

            We've known for at least 20 years that performance-enhancing drugs can kill. Former NFL star Lyle Alzado died at 43 of brain cancer in 1992. He still remains one of the few athletes to publicly admit that his demise was from excessive steroid use. A 1984 British study found that 26 Soviet Olympic medalists died between 1976 and 1982. A 2002 Finnish study stated that Finland's former weightlifters were nearly five times more likely to die than people the same age. Both reports blamed steroids.

            I feel bad for the Soviet Bloc athletes who died because they were forced to take steroids as part of their training regimen. But I don't feel bad for those who died after making the conscious decision to use performance-enhancing drugs.

            They knew the risk and they lost.

            Unfortunately, the outrage in baseball is less about an athlete's health than it is about personal accomplishment.

            It's about what to do with Barry Bonds' records, if he did use steroids. He might break Hank Aaron's career homerun mark in 2005. And he broke Mark McGwire's 1998 single-season homerun mark in 2001.

            But those are individual records. Baseball is a team sport. Bonds, Giambi, and Sheffield haven't exactly led their clubs to World Series championships year after year.

            Furthermore, there are performance enhancers other than drugs. There are new stadiums with shallow outfields; technically advanced training methods; improved diets. And there's better player equipment; comprehensive scouting material of opposing teams; meticulous self-scouting material for individual players; and generally, way more information about playing baseball than the CIA has on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

            Over the years, journalists have also mentioned "juiced" baseballs. But it appears we'll never know for sure. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig wanted to test those for steroids, but MLB Players' Association Executive Director Donald Fehr denied the request.

Still, people want to blame performance-enhancing drugs. That's ridiculous. Frankly, who cares?

            We need to look at athletes as entertainers. Whatever it takes for them to reach that level where we marvel at their performances, then that's what it takes. And we need to appreciate that as much as we appreciate a player being gutsy enough to risk his career by taking a local anesthetic and making plays.

            Comedian John Belushi was among the funniest people in Saturday Night Live history. For the most part, we don't really care what drugs he might have used to attain funniness. When we see his SNL reruns, we usually still laugh, not thinking any deeper than the skit in which he was performing.

            So let athletes risk death by using performance-enhancing drugs. Overall, we benefit. We get to see some special athletic feats, and the players usually die years after they retire, away from the public eye, which spares us from seeing the actual suffering.

            Of course, I'm sure they fought the good fight, like the warriors they were.