Its use is as rampant in professional locker rooms as it is in college dorms. The benefits seem endless. It will give a football prospect coming out of college an extra burst of speed to lower his 40 time and subsequent draft position into the first round. It will help melt away the extra inches around the waist of the girl who has heard the “freshman 15” sneers from her peers. It has also contributed to the sudden deaths of three professional athletes in the past couple years, including Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler several weeks ago.

Of course I am talking about ephedra, the herbal stimulant that has spurred as much congressional debate recently as the potential conflict in Iraq. Ephedra contains the chemical ephedrine which the FDA classifies as a drug and is used to synthesize illegal amphetamines. The potency of ephedrine is so high that nutritional companies are required to report all large quantity sales of it to local authorities.

Ephedra constricts a person’s blood vessels raising blood pressure and inhibiting the body’s ability to cool itself. In effect, it provides a person with such energy that they won’t stop exercising until they collapse. This may explain the 1,500 adverse event reports associated with ephedra use in the past few years, which include seizure, strokes, heart attacks and death. Other athletes who have succumbed to ephedra use include Northwestern cornerback Rashidi Wheeler and Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer.

The sale of nutritional supplements has increased to $18 billion dollars ever since Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994. The bill placed the burden of proof upon the FDA to show that a product derived from natural sources is unsafe before it can take it off the shelves. Ephedrine, the chemical is not covered by DSHEA, but ephedra the herb is.

Popular supplements such as Xenadrine — that helped kill Bechler and Stringer — Ripped Fuel and Metabolife 454, are also stacked with other stimulants such as guarana, caffeine and ultra orange that help increase a users heart rate. Not only is a person guaranteed to lose weight if they exercise strenuously while taking ephedrine, they put their life on the line as well.

Burly boozer David Wells, who pitches for the Yankees, told reporters last week that he was rushed to the emergency room with an irregular heart beat several years ago after taking Ripped Fuel. He believes that ephedra should not be banned and that the individual should know his body well enough to know whether it is safe for him. “It’s not illegal,” Wells said. “It’s the individual who takes it. If he doesn’t have a sense to read the label and know his condition, go through with a fine tooth comb and read the warning signs. If you don’t understand it, don’t take it.”He also wrote in his new book entitled “Perfect I’m Not! Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball” that amphetamines are so commonplace that if you “stand in the middle of your clubhouse and walk 10 feet in any direction, chances are you’ll find what you need.” They are cheap and easy to find, these little buggers will open your eyes, sharpen your focus and get your blood moving on demand, over and over again, right through a full 162-game season.

Major League Baseball is one of the last leagues that allows its players to ingest ephedra before taking the field. The supplement is currently banned by the NCAA, IOC and NFL. MLB has responded to the Bechler tragedy. Last week, Commissioner Bud Selig banned ephedra in the Minor Leagues. A ban in the majors may be more difficult, however. The commissioner needs approval from the stingy players association before a ban can be put into effect. But with the proliferation of home runs and gaudy stats that offensive players have been putting up in the past several years what makes you think that the players will agree to any measure that will limit their performance?

Hopefully the government will intervene before baseball has to make that decision. Congressman John Sweeney wants to suspend all sales of ephedra and plans to introduce legislation to re-classify ephedra as a drug instead of an herbal supplement. If that doesn’t work Congress can get rid of DSHEA and the FDA will no longer have to proove that ephedra is unsafe. The only problem is that the dietary supplement lobby sickly resembles that of the tobacco industry and shares its utter lack of regard for human life.

Young kids seek the benefits from taking ephedra as ardently as the nutritional producers of it seek dollar signs. As long as they see their heroes gaining a competitive edge by taking these supplements they will feel that it is okay. Consequently, there is an increasing possibility that teenagers today think that the only way of satisfying their dream to make the majors is by enhancing their performance through supplements. Today’s stars must make a stand and throw away their endless, season-supply tubs of ephedra — even if it costs them several home runs.

Rybaltowski can be reached at

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