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The Dark Side of Sports

There were no stories about it in any of the papers, no mention of it on the news, nothing. ESPN wasn't there, which meant no low-brow highlight footage, and the kids weren't talking about it in school the next day, so it must not have happened.

Except it did, and it was real, so real that most of us would just as soon block it out.

A panel of psychiatrist, chaired by Dr. Ronald Kamm of Oakhurst, Ocean Township, got together at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here Wednesday night and put on a three-hour symposium on the disorders most common to athletes. Steroid abuse, eating disorders, various degrees of psychological stress, self-perpetuating myths and the fears they create, dangerously compulsive behavior, post traumatic stress disorder, man's inhumanity to his own body.the kind of stuff you never hear about until somebody dies.

Then ESPN is all over it.

In the meantime, it is left to those who study these disorders in relative obscurity to raise the red flags. Because while the various sports pay lip service to the dangers inherent in their games, they are not likely to go out of their way to slow the cash flow. And the consumer isn't likely to pause and reflect on these matters either.

A football player dies as a result of substance abuse, we bow our heads for a moment of silence then order a couple more beers and buy the kids some NFL merchandise.

A fighter dies after taking a terrible beating, we hear from the usual suspects on how boxing should be banned, and we ante up $49.95 to see what Tyson will do next.

A gymnast who has been a prisoner of her parent's ambition all her life breaks down under the weight of the pressure, and we still can't wait for the next Olympics.

A jockey is paralyzed for life after a horrible spill, we shake our heads and deplore the dangers of horse racing, then we turn the page to the next race on the program.

All we want to see is a smiling John Elway raising a single finger on the final day of a triumphant career. All we want to know is that Wayne Gretzky was The Great One and that Muhammad Ali was The Greatest and that Michael Jordan defied belief.

We want the glory of celebration, not the gory details of self-destruction.

Wednesday night three former athletes came to the Grand Hyatt to talk about the real stuff. Openly. Jon-Jon Park, a former Olympic swimmer who not trains Oscar De La Hoya among others; Gerry Cooney, the Great White Hope who twice fought for the heavyweight title in the '80's, and Herb McCauley, the jockey who won over 3,000 races before he was badly injured in a spill at Monmouth Park last July.

Park, also a renowned body builder, talked about the extremes boxers will go to in order to lose weight before a fight, about how they will drain all the fluids from their body, including up to a liter of blood, and how they will starve themselves, eating only two apples a day in the days leading up to a fight.

In Mexico, he said, fighters will bundle themselves up in plastic and stand in a ring of fire to sweat off the pounds quickly. Or they will bundle themselves up in the plastic and get in a car and turn the heat all the way up. Cooney, who was never the same after Larry Holmes stopped him in the 13th round of their title fight in 1982, is in great demand as a public speaker, these days. Not just because he's light on his feet, either.

Because he has been through hell and lived to tell about it.

His father was an alcoholic, and physical abuse was part of the package.

"But also it was 'You're no good, you're a failure, don't trust nobody, don 't tell anybody your business,' all that stuff," Cooney said. "That's how my father grew up, I guess, and that's what he was taught. They didn't teach him much about living life."

"It's so amazing how difficult it is for somebody to climb up those four steps and wait for that bell to ring, knowing you're standing there in front of thousands and thousands of people," he said. "You want to succeed, but in some ways you want to fail too. When someone gave me a compliment, I'' spend 10 minutes trying to talk them out of it."

"I was 25-0, and I was 25 years old, and I was fighting for the championship of the world. But when success came to me, it was frightening. . What I did was, I picked up the bottle. Then I would get depressed.

"The ghosts in my closet from when I was a kid came out when I lost to Larry Holmes, that's when I got into substance abuse. I kinda got lost for a while, disappeared."

"I wish I'd gotten help earlier in my career. That's why I came here tonight, to put these things on the table. . It would be nice to address these issues when fighters are 19 years old, but maybe it's time to open the back door and let the old guys know."

Because the old guys can't get the roar of the crowd out of their heads. That's what this upcoming Larry Holmes-James "Bone-crusher" Smith fight is all about.

Robert Burton, a professor at Northwestern, had quite an act to follow once Cooney was done. But Burton did manage to grab everyone's attention with the graphic numbers he produced. According to an NCAA study that was just released, 16 percent of female athletes and 13 percent of male athletes competing today in Division I sports binge and purge monthly, while 8 percent to 9 percent do so on a weekly basis. In addition, 72 percent of the female athletes and 44 percent of the male athletes are dieting.

Burton then introduced McCauley, one of the most successful and most popular jockeys who ever rode at Monmouth Park.

"This is the first time I've ever talked about this publicly," he began, addressing a ballroom full of complete strangers.

McCauley has suffered from bulimia since he was in high school, in North Carolina. Because he was too small to play basketball, a religion down there, he became a wrestler. And because he was a wrestler, he was constantly having to make weight.

His senior year, McCauley said, he would come to school on Monday morning weighting 118-122 pounds, and by Wednesday he would be down to 98-101. H would run in the morning. He would wear rubber suits to class. He would run at lunch. He would wear rubber suits to his afternoon classes. He would get up underneath the mats in gym class and sweat and sweat and sweat some more. Then he would eat something and force himself to throw it right back up. "And I ate so many slabs of laxatives back then that I still can't look at a Hershey bar today," he said.

Then one summer, while he was working at the track, he discover Lasix, a diuretic they use on race horses. This worked fine - up until the day they found him on the floor of his apartment, one of his kidneys frozen up.

By then he had decided the racetrack was where he was going to make his living.

"I was trying to find my identity, and I was small, so I went from wrestling to horses," McCauley said, admitting that "the roar of the crowd" often made him feel a whole lot taller than he was.

But in order to ride at the major racetracks in New York and New Jersey he had to keep his weight down around 112 pounds, not exactly for a grown man who's 5-foot-6. So he kept up the binge-and-purge routine, trying as best he could to rationalize his bulimia, while also trying to hide the habit from his children.

"When my son was 5 he heard me in the bathroom and he started to mimic the sound I was making," McCauley said. "I knew I had to do something then, because I didn't want my kids hearing this or seeing this.

"Mentally I still needed to do it, though, because the game is very competitive and the fans are constantly screaming at you," he added. "And now I was 41, 42 years old. But after I went down on July 10, I realized I needed more than just physical therapy for my leg. I also needed mental therapy. I had a lot of personal problems.

"I'll never forget the picture someone took of my and my daughter on our back porch after I got out of the hospital. We were about the same size.

"My daughter's 5 years old."

"That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, seeing that picture. What I thought was normal for me was not normal at all."

"I'd say 95 percent of all riders reduce in some way. Hopefully, this will shed some light on the fact that there is a lot of abuse going on out there."

As difficult as it was for Herb McCauley to sit in front of that room full of strangers and tell them what happened to him, as tough as it is for Gerry Cooney to keep digging back into the dark recesses of his childhood, this is the only way the rest of us are ever going to find out about the real problems that today's athlete faces.

Wish so many coaches and trainers and advisers and agents and teams and leagues out there, with so few people who care about anything other than the number of zeroes on the check, with all the attention focused on who's winning and who's losing and who's doing it with some style, who has time to hear the real stories about what's going on?

Who has time for real-life triumphs? Like Gerry Cooney's, or Herb McCauley 's. Who has time to listen to anyone with the guts to stand up and tell the world about the serious problems they dealt with so that others might benefit from their experience?

Maybe it's time we make time.

Bill Handleman
Asbury Park Press
Sunday, May 23, 1999

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Ronald L. Kamm, M.D.
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