By Mike Mooneyham

Dec. 23, 2007

America’s addiction to performance enhancement is one of the big stories coming out of 2007. And nowhere is that reflection greater than in professional sports.

The Barry Bonds debate, the George Mitchell opus, athletes shooting up with steroids and human growth hormone. The epidemic continues to sweep through American sports, and it’s unlikely that congressional hearings or all the hand-wringing in the world will change that fact. Sadly, as long as pro sports turn huge profits, it’ll be business as usual.

The fact that major league baseball and professional wrestling are rife with juiceheads is hardly a revelation. The drug infestation started long before Bonds began belting 450-foot blasts and Hulk Hogan became a colossus of the mat. And, like major league baseball, pro wrestling has not done a very good job of policing itself.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Shaun Assael, in his latest book, “Steroid Nation,” describes how the muscle-enhancing substance has grown into the country’s most insidious drug addiction. The story is compelling and disturbing.

What’s even more alarming is that hundreds of thousands of teen-aged American athletes are likely using steroids at an age when the drugs are even more dangerous to the human body than they are to adults.

“These are kids using without medical supervision,” says Assael. “If you have a major leaguer who can afford to be monitored by a doctor, odds are that major leaguer isn’t going to do a whole lot to his health, at least for the short term. But kids are a whole different story. They’re putting synthetic stuff into their bodies at a time when their production is at its highest. It’s ludicrous.”

Sports, says Assael, is a reflection of society in general.

“What we’re seeing in baseball is what we’re seeing in society. Anti-aging medicine is one of the big boom areas. Just like Americans want to turn back the clock, so do our sports stars. The difference is that in sports, it’s competitive balance, and that’s why it’s such a thorny issue.”

But it’s not just performance-enhancing drugs. It’s also the powerful painkillers, prevalent in the physically and mentally demanding world of pro wrestling, that allow athletes to mask their constant pain from nagging injuries and endure the oppressive travel schedule and workload.

Lex Luger, who parlayed his chiseled physique into a lucrative 20-year wrestling career, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was “one of the biggest cheaters ever” and did whatever it took to sustain his abuse of drugs and steroids while in WWE and the now-defunct WCW.

Luger was the “Total Package,” a 6-5, 275-pound powerhouse and one of the biggest stars in the business, the man Vince McMahon once tabbed to be Hulk Hogan’s successor and the face of his company. He was the poster boy for an industry and audience enamored of artificially pumped-up success.

A decade later, the 49-year-old Luger is basically broke and a shell of his former self. A newfound contriteness allows him to readily admit that he was a pill-popper, an alcohol abuser and a convicted felon.

Luger, now a born-again Christian, told the Journal-Constitution that he was one of 700 patients – from a number of different sports – of a California doctor who would arrange for steroids and human growth hormones to arrive at his door chilled on ice. He says an oil-based testosterone cream that he rubbed into the body was like the “fountain of youth.”

Regular drug testing, says Luger, was hardly a deterrent. He claims he was never asked to strip when giving a urine sample, and would use clean urine in place of his own, or use Visine in his urine to mask the presence of drugs in his system.

Luger was a heartbeat away from suffering the same fate as scores of friends in the business had, and admits nearly overdosing dozens of times. He attributes a fast metabolism rate to saving his life on numerous occasions.

“I went in deep a bunch of times with pills and alcohol,” said Luger, whose real name is Larry Pfohl. “I was a pill-popper. And I abused alcohol toward the end, real bad. And I got caught with steroids in my house. I am a convicted felon. I deserved it. And I take accountability for that.”

“I am trying to help others avoid what happened in my life, and my family and friends that I devastated,” Luger told the ESPN Web site earlier this year. “I dishonored my profession. I dishonored my community, all because I couldn’t control myself and got this sick other lifestyle and drug abuse. I want to help our young kids stay away from that.”

Luger also harbors guilt for the death of his girlfriend, wrestling personality Miss Elizabeth (Liz Hulette), who died four years ago in the townhouse they shared. The cause, according to the coroner’s report, was “acute toxicity” brought on by a smorgasbord of prescription painkillers and vodka.

“I take a lot of responsibility for that – my influence in her life,” he now admits. “Her little heart and body couldn’t take what I was doing.”

Pro wrestling, says Luger, sells “bigger than life.”

“And bigger-than-life, what does that mean? A lot of chemically enhanced heroes and villains – guys my height and size or bigger. You can’t see that on the street every day. You have to buy a ticket to see that.”

“This is all about models for kids,” says Assael. “Wrestlers continue to define body image. That’s why wrestling remains in the cross hairs. We’re going to see, with congressional hearings, a whole new era of scrutiny.”

It’s difficult to single out wrestling in the steroids debate, says Assael, because of other issues such as drug and alcohol abuse.

“But I don’t know that there’s ever been a time when we’ve been this focused on this drug (steroids) in so many different areas – football, baseball, wrestling,” he adds.

Lex Lugar

Lex Lugar

Luger, whose hips have deteriorated, currently is recovering from a “spinal stroke” he suffered while attending a recent autograph convention in California. The stroke has left him paralyzed, and the prognosis is uncertain.

“I want everyone to continue to pray that God’s will be carried out through this time,” Luger said in a statement last month. “If God’s plan for me is to be a paraplegic, then I am seriously happy with that. God is in control, and since he is the creator, and I am the creature, then why should I question His decisions?”

The debate over regulation has already spilled over to state athletic commissions.

In Georgia, the Athletic and Entertainment Commission, better known as the boxing commission, is considering regulating pro wrestling in the state, although the WWE is exempt due to a 2005 statute that excluded groups with total assets of more than $25 million.

After protests from nearly 70 current and former wrestlers and promoters at a meeting Tuesday in Atlanta, the commission decided to wait 60 days until making a final decision on state regulations that would place tight restrictions and oversight on smaller wrestling promotions.

The proposed regulations, such as having paid medical personnel on hand for all events, would apply only to small-time wrestling operations. The board also wants to increase inspection of wrestlers and their organizations as well as banning any physical or verbal threats toward the audience and the use of too much grease lotion or foreign substances on a wrestler’s body.

“I think it went positive,” commission chairman J.J. Biello told the Journal-Constitution after the meeting. “We were looking for feedback. We’re open to looking at the rules and changing some things as long as it fairly represents the interest of the state and the fighters, or entertainers in this case. Our main concern is the health and safety of the performers.”

WWE representative John Taylor also was pleased.

“It’s good they listened to people who know the business,” said Taylor, an Atlanta attorney. “These rules they proposed are ridiculous.”

The WWE would not have been affected by the new proposals, but nevertheless let it be known earlier last week that the company would stop running shows in Georgia if the statute protecting them from regulations was removed. “If those regulation are applied to us, we won’t do Georgia,” WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt warned Monday.

NWA Anarchy owner Jerry Palmer was among those who argued that the new rules would put a financial chokehold on small wrestling organizations.

Furthermore, Palmer and others said, the proposed regulations would endanger wrestlers who would resort to performing in outlaw shows under no constraints.

Smackdown commentator and former world champ John Bradshaw Layfield will move into a role as a regular performer on Raw with his current feud with Chris Jericho. The program should make for some interesting promos and interplay between two of the company’s better talkers.

– “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who helped usher in one of pro wrestling biggest boom periods a decade ago, turned 43 on Tuesday. The Texas Rattlesnake was instrumental in WWE turning the tide and winning its wrestling war with WCW.

– Last week’s Raw rating dropped back to a 3.5 after hitting a 4.2 the previous week for its 15th anniversary extravaganza.

– The planned finale for the anniversary show was to have Bret Hart put Vince McMahon in a sharpshooter as the show went off the air. Hart, however, turned down offers to appear on the show, and the revised version had Austin stunning McMahon followed by a beer bath celebration that included most of the evening’s participants.

– Latest plan for Wrestlemania 24 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando is Triple H vs. Batista. Edge vs. The Undertaker also is still on the table. And one would certainly hope that Ric Flair is in the spotlight as he attempts to win the gold one last time at the big show.

– Joanie Laurer, the artist formerly known as Chyna, is expected to be part of the cast for VH1’s upcoming Celebrity Rehab series. Dr. Drew Pinsky will host.

Season 4 Idol cast-off Jessica Sierra is the only celeb confirmed thus far. Other expected names are forgotten Baldwin brother Daniel, porn star Mary Carey and actress Brigitte Nielsen.