Interview with Dr. John Milton Hoberman on Steroids in Policing

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Hoberman - Photo

John Milton Hoberman is a Professor of Germanic languages within the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Hoberman has spent thirty years researching, lecturing, and publishing on the various social impacts of anabolic steroids. His books include Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport and Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping. He has published nearly one hundred sports articles and books in American newspapers and magazines and in Der Spiegel. He is fluent in Scandinavian languages as well as German. He is a Fellow of the European committee for sports history.

Dopers in Uniform offers the first assessment of the dimensions and consequences of the felony use of anabolic steroids in major urban police departments. Marshalling an array of evidence, John Hoberman refutes the frequent claim that police steroid use is limited to a few “bad apples,” explains how the “Blue Wall of Silence” stymies the collection of data, and introduces readers to the broader marketplace for androgenic drugs. He then turns his attention to the people and organizations at the heart of police culture: the police chiefs who often see scandals involving steroid use as a distraction from dealing with more dramatic forms of misconduct and the police unions that fight against steroid testing by claiming an officer’s “right to privacy” is of greater importance. Hoberman’s findings clearly demonstrate the crucial need to analyze and expose the police steroid culture for the purpose of formulating a public policy to deal with its dysfunctional effects.

Faktorovich: Your PhD and MA dissertations were in Scandinavian literature (primarily nineteenth century). You have also taught in the Germanic Studies department (Scandinavian and Norwegian) since 1970. In contrast, all of your book publications since 1984 have been in the politics of sports. Some of your contributed chapters have been in Germanic languages. You have written about German sports medicine. And you have done some conference presentations on Scandinavian studies back when you were getting started in the 70s. You started presenting on sports at around that same time as well, and have done many times more presentations in this field. What motivated your research into sport politics? Did you practice sports as a youth? What sports did you play, if so? Do you still play a sport? What do you for exercise? Do you watch a lot of sports or attend games; which ones, if so? Your teaching has been split between Germanic studies and sports studies. Do you prefer teaching sports to a course like “Scandinavian Civilization”? Do you pick your own courses, or are you encouraged to teach primarily in the area in which you received your PhD? Would you advise graduate students to pick an area that they are likely to want to teach for the rest of their lives, or is there a lot of room in academia to publish in a field that is a new interest, and then make a switch into teaching it?

Hoberman: I decided to go into sports studies in January 1971 while in graduate school in Berkeley doing a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Languages and Literature. I had been (and for many years would continue to be) a sub-elite runner who loved the sport. I think the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games were another stimulus. Being in Berkeley during the period 1966-72 also made me a social critic in a way I had not been before. It dawned on me that the sports world could be analyzed like any other social institution. Today I walk for exercise and watch very little sports on TV or elsewhere. Knowing as much as I do about the way the elite sports world works, it has become impossible for me to be a fan. There are many intellectuals who handle this very differently and are passionate sports fans whose hero worship sometimes makes me wonder about their critical faculties. Someday I will do a book on this topic in as open-minded way as I can manage.

I have taught a broad range of courses at UT-Austin since 1979, and I have been able to pick almost all my courses. I advise graduate students to do what they know they really want to do, because that is what can sustain you through graduate school and beyond. I also point out that there is good luck and bad luck involved, and that there are no guarantees that these investments will produce satisfying careers. So you have to really believe in the importance of what you choose to do. It’s an avocation, like being a good doctor, or a good police officer, or a good priest.

Faktorovich: Why are you particularly interested in hormone testosterone, steroids and other sports related drugs? Have you ever tried steroids? If so, what was your experience like with them? If not, did you have an experience that convinced you that sports-enhancing drugs were a major problem? Where do you draw the line between appropriate enhancements and immoral or inappropriate ones? For example, do you drink coffee, tea, energy drinks or other stimuli, or depressants such as alcohol? If so, why are these socially acceptable, while steroids and other drugs are banned?

Hoberman: Testosterone is a particularly interesting hormone for me (1) because it has been a powerful performance-enhancer that has distorted the performance histories of entire sports, and (2) because it is the “male” hormone, and I am a man. Writing Testosterone Dreams was a fine way to learn about my own psychophysiological characteristics. I have never wanted to use supplementary testosterone (the basic anabolic steroid), in part because I am an informed patient who does not trust the advertising put out by pharmaceutical firms and other hormone hustlers. Reading the medical literature on testosterone therapy should make potential patients wary of this exercise in wish-fulfillment. Then talk to doctors who try to get men off their steroid habits. It’s a sad story.

“Drawing the line” in a firm and consistent way between appropriate and inappropriate enhancements is essentially impossible. How and why societies either embrace or reject various “drugs” is hugely complicated and involves recognizing the importance of the “social construction” of attitudes and values.

Faktorovich: In one of your best-known books, Testosterone Dreams, you talk about your potential “drug-taking coworkers” staying “alert” as “their ‘supernormal’ stamina may well recalibrate the very idea of normal functioning.” The problem, as you see it, is that their spiked “productivity” might mean that “doping” is “compulsory” for all employees to keep up with this extreme level of efficiency. Are you discussing personal experiences you have had with academic coworkers who drink so much coffee that they outperform you? Given the nearly 30-page-long CV that you sent for my review, it seems like you are that one employee in your department who’s making everybody else work harder to compete. So, can you clarify your position on this issue?

Hoberman: Regarding the whole issue of what I call “workplace doping,” namely “drug-taking co-workers,” suffice it to say that these self-medicating coping strategies are very widespread and often go unnoticed or are purposely ignored. I have never encountered a “doped” academic colleague, and I would be dubious about the utility of any such strategy. Many college students have no doubt that Adderall helps them concentrate better on their studies and can help them get into better professional schools. Cocaine on Wall Street for performance-enhancement? I don’t know, but it is certainly possible. Besides: what is doping, what is an allowable enhancement, and what is just a “tonic” that is considered a “natural” part of everyday life. These are complicated conceptual problems with few logically satisfying conclusions.

Faktorovich: The Olympics banned caffeine use between 1984 and 2004, limiting intake to under 12 micrograms per milliliter of caffeine, and there has been a debate about bring this ban back into place. Do you think it was a fair ban considering an athlete on an enormous quantity of caffeine might significantly out-perform less caffeinated rivals? Is it more acceptable because it has fewer harmful effects on the body? Why would this make a difference if the bans at the Olympics are supposed to be purely to avoid unfair advantages?

Hoberman: Caffeine has been on and off the banned-substances list. I doubt there is a reliable scientific study that documents, let alone quantifies, the performance-effects of caffeine. It is very hard to prove that a particular biologically active substance improves a specific type of human performance. There is a lot of magical thinking about drugs, including fantasies about pharmacological efficacy that may not accord with reality.

Faktorovich: Your Wikipedia page has a “Controversy” section where you are accused of stirring up racial tensions back in 1997 with Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black American and Preserved the Myth of Race. The author states that anybody looking deeper into the book would be convinced that rather than being racist, you opposed racism. The excerpts quoted discuss how there is still a bias against black athletes despite apparent integration. Another excerpt discusses how the myth of Jackie Robinson’s success and other tokenisms have put a blanket of perceived comfort over continuing racism. You have acknowledged that you ventured into a touchy topic as a white man with this book, but you have continued writing about race. So, can you clarify your argument in this book? Are you using statistics to show continued racism? What are the signs that racism is still with us that trouble you? Why wouldn’t having a few successful athletes to admire benefit black youths? I have made a similar argument about the overt sexuality and other negative racial stereotypes in Alice Walker’s fiction, and how they might have influenced other black arts, and in turn made promiscuity and violence popular, spiking crime among black youth. I tried to avoid making a direct parallel, focusing instead of the facts of the case. I hope your answer can help me to understand my own reaction better as well as your perspective.

Hoberman: Darwin’s Athletes (1997) was a controversial book, and I am very grateful for that. It was a rough ride for a couple of years, but it enabled me to move beyond the crippling liberal-guilt complex that I am writing about in the current book-in-progress about the Moynihan Report on the Negro Family (1965). In fact, I was just one of a long series of white authors (think: William Styron and Nat Turner in 1967) who have gotten into trouble for being considered intruders into black space. Was I, to some extent, a naïve white author? Absolutely, though this is almost a tautological statement. Show me a white author on black life who is free of some degree of naïveté. The impact of Darwin’s Athletes on my life has been so interesting and so complicated that I published a long essay on this topic in 2014 that should be accessible to your readers: “Darwin’s Athletes: A Retrospective After Fifteen Years.”

Faktorovich: Testosterone Dreams was reviewed positively in Playboy in 2005. I did not know that Playboy reviewed scholarly books, but the same page includes short reviews about Freemasonry and China, so apparently, they did. Did you ask your publisher to send a review copy to Playboy, send one of your copies, or did tis reviewer find this book by some other way? The review begins thus: “Since testosterone was first synthesized in 1935, it has been hyped as an antidote for old age, sagging libido and girlie-man muscles.” Do you think it benefits scholarly books when they can be simplified to the basics, as readers might pick it up assuming that it is approachable? What do you think about the shrinking review sections in most of the major newspapers that have historically published most of the top book reviews? Since you are a tenured professor (and thus probably don’t have serious financial motivations), why are you so aggressive in selling your books to the mainstream marketplace? Should other scholars take similar measures? If so, what do you recommend they do to promote themselves as approachable for a general reader?

Hoberman: I can only guess why Testosterone Dreams got a short “review” in Playboy, but I’m glad it got that additional exposure. I am not concerned about a Playboy reader winding up with a book that is more than he may have bargained for, especially since this book, like all of my books, is jargon-free and can be understood by any intelligent person. I’m an anti-elitist author in that sense. As for promotion, I think that an author who has been enabled by a publisher to write a serious book with lots of research and no censorship owes that publisher a maximum effort toward selling as many copies as possible in any reasonable way he can. I’ve been on radio and TV talking about the book to large audiences, and I’m happy to invest time in this substantial interview to reach a smaller audience. My advice to authors is that they do what they think is appropriate on behalf of their books. Some authors will not care much about audience size. I do, because I always think that the social policy issues in my books should be exposed to as many people as possible.

Faktorovich: I have read some of the other prior reviews you sent to me with interest. Most reviewers from science journals tend to insert some negative criticism alongside positive comments. One that stood us is from The Journal of Clinical Investigation on your Testosterone Dreams book. The review starts with a few typos of its own: “Hoberman, John; . Testosterone… 2005.University of California Press.: Berkeley, USA.390…” The semicolon with a space after it and then a strange period obviously bothers me as ex-English professor. Why isn’t there something before the period? Then the lack of spaces after a couple of the periods that follow and the strange period before the colon after the name of the press are also frustrating. Did they bother you too? It’s hard to imagine how Cynthia Kuhn managed to create these problems. When my students attempt making automated citations to avoid remembering the formula, they sometimes make similar glitches. I have noticed some misspellings and glitches like this in the mentions I have had in the media. I have always wondered how these guys can be so critical and nitpicky and yet leave major mistakes in their own writing. What are your thoughts on this. Either way, here is the part that drew my attention to this article: “The absence of science limited my enthusiasm for the book. For example, the author is bemused about the failure of testosterone to catch on as a medicine but mainly dismisses the side effects of testosterone and doesn’t even consider the differences between the amounts used medically and the suprapharmacologic doses used by athletes.” What is your response to this criticism? It particularly affected me because I was prescribed a nasal steroid for my chronic sinuses problem, and I believe using this drug triggered me to gain around a hundred pounds, which I only lost via a vegan diet a year ago after a decade of being obese. I’m pretty sure that using steroids on-and-off for a couple of years contributed to the weight gain, but I definitely don’t have any scientific proof of it. I did start exercising regularly in this period as well (for some reason). Did you consider these types of steroid uses as you were researching this book? What do you think about the connection between steroids and weight gain? Would you agree with the reviewer that your book is completely devoid of “science”? Have you considered writing a book in this field with a scientist who might research the scientific end to cancel out these types of doubters; if not, why not? Reviewers frequently tend to criticize what writers leave out of books. Isn’t the biggest part of good writing what you leave out? In other words, would a book be infinitely long if a writer does not leave anything that a reviewer might want to read about out?

Hoberman: My response to the “absence of science” commentary is that the reviewer cannot have paid much attention to the book. For example, I was not “bemused” about anything. I attributed the lack of a mass market for testosterone to the sexual conservatism of that era, namely the furor over the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953. The claim that Testosterone Dreams is devoid of science is nonsensical. Perhaps the social and medical history of testosterone therapy do not count as science to this reviewer.

I assume the steroids you were using were corticosteroids rather than the sex hormone testosterone, which is the subject of the book.

I do not expect to be writing books with scientists to fend off doubts about the “science” content of my books. The whole point of my science-related books, whether they deal with hormones or medical racism, is to offer the social and political and historical contexts of the science that is being done.

Faktorovich: The topic of police doping has crept into your books and articles many times. Dopers in Uniform seems to be your first book-length study solely on this subject. You explain that the motivation for this focus is the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has raised public awareness of the use of deadly force by police officers. Despite the “Blue Wall of Silence”, you took a rather scientific approach to this study, gathering statistics on usage. In the chapter about what is publicly known about police steroid use, you give statistics that indicate that most police shooting cases are dismissed, but no clear statistics on the percentage of officers who are using steroids. You mention that one sign of the rate of usage is apparent from the 248 law enforcement officers and firefighters that were proven to be using steroids when Dr. Joseph Colao dropped dead at forty-five after prescribing it to them. Given these statistics, this single doctor was prescribing steroids to around four officers per district. How many officers could there have been in those districts, and how many officers used other doctors? Have you considered other less direct methods of gathering this information despite the lack of systematic testing? How can researchers who are involved in Black Lives Matter discover the rates of steroid usage in their local police departments? Is the data accessible to the general public? Did you have to make any formal requests for this information? Have you looked into what percentage of police-involved shootings involve officers who are using steroids? Are all police officers involved in shootings tested for mind-altering substances, including steroids as part of the investigation? If not, should these findings be made public?

Hoberman: These are all excellent questions, and it is currently impossible to produce satisfactory answers to most of them. Why is this the case? Because police departments are not interested in detecting or publicizing officers’ illicit and illegal anabolic steroid use. It is, therefore, impossible to know how many officers are using or how many are getting drugs from unethical doctors. We do not know how many suspicious police shootings are related to steroid use. The secrecy that pervades police departments is currently an insuperable obstacle to

gathering various kinds of information. I did not make formal requests for information (1) because I would not have expected to get answers, and (2) because police officials don’t produce most of the information one might request. Should they produce information about officer conduct and make it public? Yes, but the political pressure that might bring about such a reform is simply not there. The crisis-plagued Chicago Police Department provides one example of this


Faktorovich: You also explain that police unions have prevented standardized testing of police officers for steroid use citing their privacy rights. You clearly don’t think that privacy concerns are relevant when it comes to steroid usage during policing. Why not? One telling indicator that American police officers are too doped up is comparing American and UK cop shows. In the UK, the cops are frequently very short, include a lot of female officers, lack muscle definition and are generally very polite in their approach to potential suspects. Cops and the like, in contrast, includes very tall men with exploding muscles, dead stares and a very rough attitude that assumes guilt and assumes suspects are going to resist. Naturally, seeing an extremely aggressive and muscular cop approaching might make suspects respond by running away or having a fit. On the other hand, perhaps American suspects are more violent and therefore any American cops who attempt to do the job without extreme muscles are unlikely to stay on the job. What do you think about this? What comes first, violence among criminals or violence among police officers? What can those who are lobbying for fairness towards blacks from their police force gain by reading your book?

Hoberman: The comparison between American policing and British policing is very instructive. There are about 55 million people in the UK, and their police kill about 25 people a year. There are about 320 million people in the United States, and our police kill more than a thousand people a year. The numbers from Scandinavia would no doubt be even more dramatic. Our policing style has become increasingly militarized since the 1980s. And, yes, many of the male cops you see on Cops do look strangely similar to each other. Police forces include many men I refer to in the book as “action-oriented.” It is important to understand that this a masculine style issue that has serious consequences. For example, the vast majority of white police officers voted for Donald Trump, who has encouraged cops to treat their suspects more violently. In fact, Trump could not have been elected without the constant displays of his pseudo-masculinity and bravado. It is no accident that the motorcycle-riding crowd are his most loyal faction. Being or admiring Trump—like steroid use—promotes a “male” (read: aggressive or brutal) attitude.

Faktorovich: What advice do you have for new researchers who are interested in controversial topics, but are afraid that they might be criticized for venturing into these territories? Why is it important to discuss taboo topics? Why is it important for a researcher to write about the topics that happen to interest him or her at the moment rather than only the subject that is determining their future tenure?

Hoberman: Researchers interested in controversial topics should not be inhibited by the possibility—or, in some cases, the inevitability—of criticism and controversy. I can tell you from experience that the benefits of dealing with controversy greatly outweigh the initial emotional trauma. Doing good research that upsets people is an essential contribution to society.

Faktorovich: Thank you for chatting with me.


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