Media outlets have been buzzing in the past few days with reports of athletes taking a compound called “deer antler velvet.” This product comes in spray and pill form.
One of its most outspoken proponents is a small operation called Sports with Alternatives to Steroids (SWATS). SWATS is run out of the back of a small gym in Fultondale, Ala., and owned by Mitch Ross and Christopher Key. These two individuals have spent the last couple of years trying to build a business that sells deer antler velvet, as well as several other new age performance enhancing tools.
Key is the point man for the sales pitch given to numerous college and professional athletes. He has been trying to land endorsements from a number of these athletes. In addition to pitching the deer antler spray, he has extolled the power of radio waves and negatively charged water as means to enhance athletic performance.
There have been reports out of Miami that a business called the Biogenics Clinic, run by a man named Tony Bosch, has been distributing deer antler spray and other banned substances. The primary focus of these reports has been on Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez. However, it was also reported that the business supplied Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis with deer antler spray, as he sought to recover from the arm injury that sidelined him during the latter stages of the 2012 regular season.
These recent news reports would lead the public to believe that deer antler velvet just appeared on the scene. In fact, the substance is nothing more than an updated version of an ancient Chinese medicine first developed over 1,500 years ago. The substance is derived from the actual antlers of deer before they become calcified. At that early stage, the antlers can be removed from a deer without harming the animal. Ross and Key have claimed that their version is especially beneficial, because it is made from the antlers of New Zealand deer.
Key got as many as 20 University of Alabama football players to come to his room at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans the night before the BCS Championship Game in January 2012 against Louisiana State University. These players all apparently showed up that night seeking an edge in the following night’s game.
It turns out that Alabama has sent two “cease and desist” letters to Ross and Key. The letters instructed them to end all contact with Alabama players. In spite of the letters, players apparently have continued to contact the two men for products, as did a number of players from Auburn.
One story that has circulated in the state of Alabama is that before the 2010 Iron Bowl football game between Alabama and Auburn, a number of Auburn players used deer antler spray and other products supplied by SWATS. Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead in that game in Tuscaloosa but Auburn roared back and won the game 28-27. Auburn went on to win the BCS national championship that year.
In 2011, Alabama players stoked up on SWATS products and easily beat Auburn 41-14, before going on to defeat LSU 21-0 for the national title.
The simple fact is that there is no real science that supports the claims of companies like SWATS. Indeed, in February 2011, Dr. Jordan Moon of the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala., wrote an article for the school’s online blog, The Sport Digest . This article debunked the “science” behind deer antler velvet.
Moon and others note that the claims for deer antler spray are based on the presence in the compound of a naturally occurring substance called IGF-1. IGF-1 is linked to human growth hormone (HGH) in that it is a byproduct of HGH. Proponents of IGF-1 have claimed that it produces similar results as studies done giving GH to healthy adults and measuring for muscle development and reduced muscle breakdowns.
Moon points out that a 154-pound man would have to take 25.2 million nanograms of IGF-1 per day to have the same effects as taking growth hormones. A dose of deer antler spray may contain between 3,000 and 5,000 nanograms of IGF-1. There are about 180 doses of spray in each bottle that Ross and Key sell. This means that a person would need to use between 906,000 and 1,500,000 sprays PER DAY. That roughly comes to between 5,033 and 8,333 bottles per day.
The business of SWATS, however, does not rely on real science, but on the intense desire of athletes to try almost anything to gain an edge. As Key told Sports Illustrated in a feature article that ran in its Feb. 4, 2013 issue, “Athletes want to win and compete at the highest level and so they are willing to try anything. All of the athletes are at the beginning like, ‘Look, we don’t care what it is. If it works we will use it.’”
On top of the lack of hard science to support the use of these products, IGF-1 is a substance on the banned drugs list for the NFL, NCAA, PGA and NHL. If college athletes are in fact using these products, they are violating NCAA rules and could be placing their eligibility in question.
SWATS is but one of hundreds of companies in the United States in the sport supplement business. The problem is that these products are only lightly regulated and for the most part are not illegal. A company in California called Power Balance sold millions of silicone bracelets between 2007 and 2010. These bracelets were said to have frequency-programmed holographic stickers that claimed to offer a tremendous boost in strength, balance and flexibility. The company used Shaquille O’Neal and Lamar Odom as endorsers.
It turns out that Key made audio tapes of his meetings with many of these players. Over the past two years, he has used these kinds of endorsements as a means of gaining instant credibility with elite athletes. One of my sons lived for several months near Fultondale and was a member of that gym. He has stated that he was approached by Ross and Key offering to help him if he was interested in building more muscle mass. He also noted that both of them drove very expensive cars, dressed well and wore what appeared to be expensive jewelry. He believes that they have been making a good deal of money on their ventures. Their gym, meanwhile, is a run-of-the-mill workout center like thousands of others that exist around the country.
In 2008, Baltimore Raven linebacker David Vobora shared a bottle of deer antler spray given to him by a teammate. In June 2009, while with the St. Louis Rams, he failed a random drug test and was suspended by the NFL for four games. He then had a bottle of the spray tested and found that it contained the banned substance IGF-1. He hired an attorney who wrote a letter to Ross and Key offering not to sue them if they paid his client $1 million for lost wages from his suspension as well as other expenses. They ignored the letter and a lawsuit was filed. Some of the information that is now becoming public was originally produced in discovery of that case.
Ross and Key have been the objects of several legal actions. In spite of all of this controversy, business apparently continues to boom. It almost reminds one of the selling of patent medicines at the turn of the 20th century. It’s as though athletes are saying, “Don’t bother me with the facts. I know that this stuff will work.”
It is clear that college teams need to do a better job of educating their athletes. This warning also applies to pro teams and even to high schools. There are already reports of some possible harmful side effects from use of these products. This story is not going away. Where there is snake oil, there will always be snakes willing to peddle the product.
Greg Tyler is the Library Director at the United States Sports Academy. He has also taught courses at the Academy in sports law. He worked for years in youth sports as a coach, league administrator and as a soccer referee. He has a law degree and practiced law for a number of years. You can reach him at email@example.com. Dr. Jordan Moon is now a distance learning faculty member with the United States Sports Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.