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'Roid Warrior

Retiree Bob Clapp at a recent body-building contest.

Bob Clapp says his testicles are perfectly plump, thank you, and his wife of 44 years back in the kitchen is willing to attest that he is far from impotent.

I won't make him verify testicular health because above and below those testes ripple the most chiseled, menacing muscles I have ever seen on anyone over 50.

Bob Clapp is 66. The social security checks just started rolling in, and he's enjoying the senior-citizen discounts.

He doesn't need the Medicare. Doctors tell him he has the health of a 30-year-old.

I do ask if I may lop off his head, cryogenically freeze his body à la Ted Williams and put my head on his body when mine wears out in a couple years.

No knockout punch comes. Lucky for me, he doesn't have 'roid rage.

Indeed, in every mental and physical way, including a gorgeous mop of his own hair, Bob Clapp is the poster gramps for anabolic steroids.

Clapp has used and advocated anabolic steroid use for 40 years.

Part of that advocacy meant trafficking the stuff from Europe. In the early 1990s, Clapp was arrested for selling anabolic steroids as part of a massive steroid bust by local law enforcement. Clapp was released in 1997 after spending 22 months in federal prison.

Now Clapp, a retired high school English teacher and coach in the Scottsdale school district, is back in his advocacy role.

Government has no right to tell adults what they can or can't do with their own bodies, he argues, particularly when there is no scientific proof that what they do with their bodies is dangerous.

He calls his libertarian philosophy "bodily sovereignty."

And all this hand-wringing about steroids in baseball, he says, is nothing more than the hysteria of "puritanical Luddites."

If you want to ban steroids, he argues, you should ban all modern performance enhancers. If you want Barry Bonds on a level playing field with Babe Ruth, you should also put him on a level playing field with Rogers Hornsby or, let's be really fair, Abner Doubleday.

Hell, if you really want fair play, you should outlaw modern vitamins, modern weight rooms, modern fitness regimens, modern balls, modern ballparks and the modern habit of baseball players to abstain from booze, smokes and sex with prostitutes between innings.

"This argument about a level playing field or the purity of the game' is absurd," Clapp growls from behind his writing desk at his home in north Phoenix. "If you're going to start rolling technology back, where do you stop?"

You stop at anabolic steroids, we Luddites argue, because they're dangerous, and using them is an insidious form of cheating that forces non-cheaters to cheat so they can continue to play the game. Inevitably, it forces kids to blood-dope to keep up and fuels that oxymoronic modern American cultural phenomenon, Situational Ethics.

At its heart, though, the issue is not about ethics. It is about health.

And here, Bob Clapp, far beyond flaunting his own body, has a legitimate argument that the rage against the health impacts of 'roids on male athletes really may be unjustified hysteria.

"There is absolutely no proof that anabolic steroids have negative long-term health effects to adult males," he says.

He's right.

Charles E. Yesalis, professor of health and human development at Penn State University, is arguably the nation's foremost expert on, and critic of, anabolic steroids. He has written three books on the subject, including a new book he co-authored, Performance Enhancing Substances in Sports and Exercise.

"Amazingly," Yesalis told me, "there has been no credible study of the long-term health effects of anabolic steroid use."

Although they appear to cause problems for women, he says, any evidence of long-term damage for men is "purely anecdotal right now."

There are, however, several proven short-term effects, he says. He holds credence in studies showing short-term rise in aggressiveness and a profound decrease in the "good cholesterols" that keep humans from having heart attacks. Also, the liver seems to be hurt by pill forms of anabolic steroids.

However, all those short-term side effects seem to disappear once a man stops using anabolic steroids.

And most athletes only use steroids in short cycles and often suspend use once they step away from competition. Anabolic steroid users also can take a cocktail of growth hormones for a short time, bulk up, and quit and retain as much as 75 percent of the benefits.

Legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol are proven to be far more dangerous than anabolic steroids, Yesalis says.

"You know, if my son came home and said, Dad, I'm either going to start smoking or I'm going to get on steroids,' I'd have to say I would hope he would choose steroids," he says.

As far as we know, if used in recommended doses for limited periods of time, anabolic steroids are safe. And they better be, Yesalis says, "because we've been using the same drug in medicine for 65 years with no problems."

"This may seem strange to you," he says, "but I can argue both sides of this issue with sincerity. It would be incorrect to say there is a final word on anabolic steroids."

Clapp says the only reason anabolic steroids are illegal, and banned from sports, is because they work.

Yesalis says that's absurd. Here is where Clapp and Yesalis head in opposite directions.

Body builders and other athletes are notorious for taking up to 100 times the doses deemed harmless by medical science, Yesalis says.

And athletes, like drug addicts, are notorious for saying they'll quit after short-term use.

And anecdotal evidence and smaller studies suggest that this much-needed long-term anabolic steroid study won't come to rosy conclusions.

"A lot of people mistake absence of evidence for evidence of absence," he says.

Yesalis also believes that anabolic steroids are just plain cheating. He believes the use of anabolic steroids in baseball has badly tainted the game.

"I look at these chemical cowboys in baseball and it makes me sick," he says. "In my mind, they can't carry the jockstrap of a guy like Mickey Mantle."

In my mind, the danger of a guy like Bob Clapp is that he might be the equivalent of those healthy 99-year-old chain smokers you read about. They're just stupid, lucky people.

But neither I nor any other journalist or anti-steroid advocate has any proof. And that is what drives Clapp crazy.

"I'm just stunned by how willing people are to write about something they clearly know nothing about," he says.

Clapp says he began using steroids in the late 1950s, back when it was the hidden secret of the emerging body-building underground.

He continued using as society became increasingly anti-steroid. Clapp was busted soon after the federal government moved anabolic steroids into the same legal classification as heroin.

Police got body builders to roll over on their supplier. Then police raided Clapp's house, put a gun to his head and hauled him to jail.

The funny thing, Clapp says, is that he knew some of the cops because they were steroid-using body builders whom he had trained.

While he says he recommends anabolic steroids to adult males, Clapp says he never once suggested steroids to non-family members under 18.

When asked if he started his own sons on anabolic steroids before age 18, he says no, because the bad science at the time of their youth suggested it might be harmful during puberty.

Science has since learned, he says, that anabolic steroid use during male puberty can give the male body a size, speed and power boost that won't disappear once the drug is no longer taken.

Clapp has three grandsons. Two play college football; the other plays fullback for Paradise Valley High School.

"So, did you recommend they take anabolic steroids?" I asked.

"Well," he says demurely, "let's just say that if I had some fictional grandsons, I might have another position than what I had with my fictional sons."

I should have been appalled at the comment, I suppose, but after listening to both Clapp and Yesalis long enough, I had begun to regret the day I turned down anabolic steroids in high school.

My friends who used them became much better athletes. And they remain stronger and healthier than I am today.

And while I still think anabolic steroids are a form of cheating in sports, they certainly aren't cheating for the millions of people who use them for therapeutic reasons.

Growth steroids may not even be cheating for the 98-pound weakling who might suffer less emotional or physical abuse if he were 10 pounds heavier.

The issue is gray, not black and white as most frame it, and without good science, it seems to be a risk/benefit analysis that should be left to the individual adult.

What isn't a gray area is that guys like Bob Clapp have been vilified and incarcerated over the last decade without being allowed a fair voice in the legitimate debate over the dangers and ethics of anabolic steroids.

That's just unethical journalism and bad policy-making.

Bob Clapp's position deserves to be heard.

And once he dies, I deserve Bob Clapp's body. That is, if he ever dies.


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