This is what Ray Lewis looks like when you ask him about deer antlers. Image credit: Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports via ESPN
If you want to annoy Ray Lewis right now (and I'd be careful about that), ask him about deer antlers.
It’s a bold journalist who puts Lewis on the spot. The 6’1, 240-pound future Hall of Fame linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens is easily one of the most intimidating men in all of sports. Questions still surround an unsolved double homicide from which Lewis fled 13 years ago. When Lewis is in a room, everyone is aware of these things. So when he said “next question,” as he did in a press conference this week to prodding about allegations he recently sought performance enhancing drugs (PED), the journalists in the room moved on to the next question.
For the moment, anyway. At present, it’s probably the number one sports story in America.
Yes, the sun came up this morning, so it’s another day. That means another alleged doping scandal. From Lance Armstrong’s not-quite-contrite confession on Oprah, to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s rejecting baseball giants like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens a few weeks ago, sports doping is on everyone’s tongues right now.
Or under them. The PED in question, which a recent article in Sports Illustrated alleges Lewis sought for help recovering from a torn triceps injury, is an anabolic hormone called IGF-1 (or insulin-like growth factor), which users spray under their tongues. It is also derived from the soft “velvet” covering on deer antlers.
Deer antlers? What is this stuff?
Ray Lewis, dismissing allegations he used PEDs derived from deer antlers, via AP
Athletes are always looking for any advantage they can get, and one way is by staying a step ahead of regulations. Within that moving frontier, a thousand-and-one hucksters are happy to peddle their wares, each promising better results than the last, part of multi-billion-dollar industry.
Deer antler spray is easy to get online. Unsurprisingly, the way it’s sold bears all the marks of traditional snake oil salesmanship. Google “deer antler spray” and the second result—deerantlerspray.org—re-routes you to igf1plus.com, an hack-job website full of typos that begins by claiming that “Orientals” have been using deer antler juice for 10,000 years—a few thousand years before the invention of the wheel.
Will deer antlers become the next rhino horns? Image by Tanty Pas via Desktopas.com
From the SI article, here’s Christopher Key of the two-man company, S.W.A.T.S. (Sports with Alternatives to Steroids), pitching deer antler spray to a hotel room full of Alabama football players before their BCS Championship game against Notre Dame (if you can call it a game):
Like the star of an infomercial flush with catchphrases—“Guys, this stuff is beyond real!”—Key also showed the players gallon jugs of “negatively charged” water, which he claimed would afford them better hydration because it adheres like a magnet to the body's cells. Then he held up a canister containing a powder additive, to be mixed in water or juice, that he said had put muscle mass on a woman who was in a coma, and an oscillating “beam ray” lightbulb that could “knock out” the swine flu virus in 90 minutes. Finally, he pulled out a bottle of deer-antler spray (which also comes in pill form). Adrian Hubbard, a linebacker sitting on one of the queen beds, said he already had some, but Key explained its benefits for the others.
“You're familiar with HGH, correct?” asked Key, referring to human growth hormone. “It's converted in the liver to IGF-1." IGF-1, or -insulin-like growth factor, is a natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth. "We have deer that we harvest out of New Zealand," Key said. "Their antlers are the fastest-growing substance on planet Earth . . . because of the high concentration of IGF-1. We've been able to freeze dry that out, extract it, put it in a sublingual spray that you shake for 20 seconds and then spray three [times] under your tongue. . . . This stuff has been around for almost 1,000 years, this is stuff from the Chinese."
IGF-1 is also a substance banned by the NCAA and by every major pro league. Alleging that the NFL warned players away from S.W.A.T.S.'s spray because it's a threat to "Big Pharma," Key boasted that S.W.A.T.S. is "the most controversial supplement company on Earth."
Beam rays and negatively-charged water... that's one thing. But deer antler spray has been banned because IGF-1 is a legitimate hormone similar to insulin. It plays a key role in childhood growth and is used therapeutically to treat children with stunted growth. According to the SI article, deer antler spray only contains IGF-1 in small amounts and the science is still out regarding whether deer-based IGF-1 actually works in humans.
Of course, interspecies-based therapies have been around forever. As I noted in a Motherboard article last month, a multitude of creams, oils and ointments using plant and animal cells—none of which have been FDA approved—flood the cosmetics market. Rhino Horn powder, as Derek Mead noted here in an in-depth article last week, really has been used in Asia for centuries and is currently worth more than its weight in gold—or platinum or cocaine. Other people inject snake venom, as this Motherboard video demonstrates,
Add deer antler spray to the list. As Mike Freeman notes for CBS Sports, players ingest all kinds of weird animal products to get an edge, from bull penis to horse meat. But the biggest takeaway from speaking with players about the Lewis situation," he adds, "was how players are using more extreme measures to better their physical performance."
"Players," he continues:
say the use of deer antler spray by NFL players -- while not common -- is not unusual. Estimates I'm getting are in the 10 percent to 20 percent range. Players have been using the extract for years.
The reason is because players have long known the spray acts like HGH, but there's no test for it, so they know they won't get caught.
I just feel bad for all the deer who, like the rhinos, will have to die so ridiculous, cartoonish humans can use just a fraction of their bodies.