Perhaps we should not base the future of American professional sport on one family’s private tragedy. Perhaps we should write off Taylor Hooton as an anomaly. Perhaps we shouldn’t be swayed by the emotional testimony of one grieving father and should instead put our faith in researchers who use the fact-based world of science to make humanity bigger, faster, stronger, smarter.
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Perhaps we should just listen to the reasons some angry people have given Don Hooton for his teenage son’s 2003 suicide – that Hooton was a bad father, that his son was suffering from a mental disorder, that the 16-year-old should have had liver tests done and tracked his performance-enhancing drug use better – instead of putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the steroids the tall, lanky pitcher was using to put on muscle and make the varsity team.
It would be easier if this were the case of just one boy who went too far. Wouldn’t it?
But perhaps we should listen to the tragic story of Don Hooton’s youngest son. And perhaps we should listen carefully, very carefully, as Hooton talks about his boy in honest, frank tones. Because this family’s private tragedy might just tell us more than we’d ever comfortably want to know about how performance-enhancing drug use at the elite level of sport trickles down to our youth.
A parent whose child has died loves to remember the best parts, and this is the case with Don Hooton. Hooton remembers how Taylor had a 3.8 GPA at Plano West Senior High School in Texas. He remembers how he’d be the only kid to walk up to the group of adults, offer up a firm handshake and look them in the eye. He remembers how, not long before Taylor’s suicide, the boy took a bus to Florida for a Southern Baptist church camp, strode into the ocean and got baptized in the surf.
But it is also the case with Don Hooton that he remembers Taylor’s worst parts, the steroid-fueled tailspin that ended in his suicide, and these are the parts that are difficult to hear.
It was his junior year when Taylor’s coach told the 6-foot-2, 180-pound kid that he needed to put on 20 pounds to make varsity. Taylor knew half his team was already juicing, so why shouldn’t he? Hooton remembers his son’s rapid weight gain, which saw him put on 30 pounds in the spring. He remembers the puffy face and the acne on his back. He remembers the bad breath. He remembers the violent outbursts. He remembers finally adding all these symptoms of steroid use together, taking Taylor to a therapist, and the therapist recommending Taylor quit cold turkey.
And he remembers those final weeks of Taylor’s life, where his body went from an overload of testosterone to none at all, and when he fell into a deep depression that ended in his death.
What does Taylor Hooton’s ill-advised (and, it must be noted, unsupervised) performance-enhancing drug use have to do with the multi-billion-dollar business of American professional sport in 2012?
And everything. We have Lance Armstrong pleading no contest to the doping prosecutors and having his seven Tour de France titles stripped away. We have the top hitter in the National League, Melky Cabrera, banished for the rest of the season for failing a PED test, coming after last year’s National League MVP, Ryan Braun, escaped suspension on a technicality. We have a sport-obsessed public which either cynically assumes every professional or Olympic sport is dirty, or which just as cynically doesn’t care.
And we have a discussion that centers on things like PED’s effect on an athlete’s legacy and avoids the bigger issue.
Which is this: How does a tacit acceptance of performance-enhancing drug use in elite sport seep into the rest of society?
On a recent afternoon I posed this question to Hooton, who has testified before Congress on the ills of PEDs and who runs a foundation in his son’s memory. I also asked him this: What if researchers came up with an entirely safe drug that enhanced human performance? What if that super-drug, in the style of soma in “Brave New World,” became legalized and accepted?
“I can’t imagine what it would look like if there was not just tacit approval but also legal and medical approval of this,” Hooton told FOXSports.com. “At the very core here, the ‘Brave New World’ kind of stuff takes us beyond what we’re here to do as humans, as human souls. Sport is about fair play. It’s honor. It’s integrity. It’s hard work. It’s you and me going up against each other and competing. Not seeing who can get next best drug that’s undetectable. Whatever drugs are legalized, the next drug will be a step beyond and a step more risky. Then you get into genetic engineering. Where do you stop?”
I have no clear answer here. I cannot tell the ethical difference between Lasik surgery that helps a hitter’s vision, and supplements at a health-food store that help a hitter’s power. I do not know where to draw the line between a drug and a supplement. I do not know the proper way to punish professional athletes who cross that line. I do not know whether legalizing some performance-enhancing drugs would put the drugs into the safer realm of medical supervision – or whether it would ingrain the problem even deeper.
It is one of the most confounding questions in sports today.
I cannot tell you why I am against performance-enhancing drug use in professional sports, only that I am. I hate that elite sports can become a competition between which team has the better chemist instead of which team has the most talent and works hardest. I wonder if our win-at-all-costs society will have us injecting our kids with “safe” drugs that can make them perfect little humans, or genetically designing our kids to be tall, left-handed pitchers. I worry if the energy drinks I happily consume are just one step on our society’s slippery slope to the belief that better performance can be found in a bottle, not inside the human soul.
And I’m terrified when I hear statistics like this: More than half a million U.S. high school students are believed to have used illegal anabolic steroids.
The foundation of NFL legend Dick Butkus runs a program, Play Clean, that discourages youth from succumbing to performance-enhancing drug pressures.
"You want the stigma of being a cheater? I guess it doesn’t bother some people," Butkus told FOXSports.com. "Everyone feels they’re entitled to everything they can get by hook or crook. But that means there’s so much pressure on these kids, with their parents and their coaches.”
Science that improves the human condition always looks great on paper, and it always comes with unknown, far-flung consequences. The combustion engine led to human mobility but also to climate change. Atomic energy was the energy of the future until it became a weapon of mass destruction. Prescription medications were our way to lead happier, healthier lives until we began to abuse them en masse.
“If I have a pill, and you can take the pill once a day and it gives you the effect of 1½ hours of exercise, picks up your heart rate and you get the benefit of exercise, would you take it?” asked Jeffrey Tanji, a sports medicine physician at the University of California-Davis. “But there’s something about the process. You want to believe that when people exercise, the process of exercise, you think that while doing it it’s good for (the) brain and does something. You don’t want to shortcut. It’s a means to an end.”
Yet often the end is, simply, money.
“This is a very financially endowed phenomenon,” said Dr. Gary Wadler, an expert on drug use in sports and former chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency banned substances committee. “The marketing gurus have recognized that there’s an opportunity to make money. When you get down to it, with doping and supplements, it’s all about money. Money made by baseball contracts and football contracts. … That’s a very seductive message out there.”
It’s one thing if the message seduces professional athletes, ruins the supposed sanctity of professional sports, and lands a few of the ones who get caught on the suspension list.
But it’s quite another if that message trickles down to a young athlete like Taylor Hooton. Which, in this society that worships our sports heroes, is inevitable.
“Across society we are sending signals to our children that these drugs are OK,” Don Hooton said. “I just don’t accept hypothetical that this stuff can ever be made safe.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.