Deer antlers provide unlikely challenge for the anti-doping movementKevin Carpenter
Earlier this year on Tuesday 29 January, 5 days before Super Bowl XLVII, Sports Illustrated (‘SI’) (the esteemed sports magazine in the United States) ran a story that gave All-Pro future Hall of Famer and NFL legend Ray Lewis a further distraction in the already manic lead up to the biggest single sports show on Earth, which was also to be his final game. SI claimed that Lewis had obtained deer antler spray from controversial supplement company Sports with Alternatives to Steroids (‘SWATS’) and used it to aid his comeback from a torn tricep injury earlier in the season. What of it you may ask?
It certainly sounds like a remedy straight from the realms of make-believe. SWATS supply the spray because deer antlers contain the substance IGF-1, a natural anabolic human growth hormone that stimulates muscle growth. Crucially IGF-1 is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Lewis isn’t the only sportsman in the US to have been named by SWATS as using the spray, the most high profile of these others being 3-time Major Championship winner, and golf Hall of Fame member, Vijay Singh. In the story SI quoted Singh from November 2012 where he said he had used the spray, “every couple of hours...every day”. The day after being named in the story Singh admitted to having paid SWATS for the spray. However he claimed not to be aware it was banned under the PGA Tour’s Anti-Doping Program Manual.1 This is despite him having reviewed the list of prohibited substances in the Manual before using the spray and the PGA Tour having sent a warning notice to its members in August 2011 following a ban imposed by the NFL on St Louis Rams player David Vobora for use of the spray. Both of these factors I would suggest indicate a certain amount of, if not dishonesty, wilful blindness.
Since this scandal broke the performance-enhancing effects of the spray have been questioned by a number of people who work in field of anti-doping. They say that the only form in which IGF-1 can be performance-enhancing is if it is taken in large, chemically purified doses by injection. Alan Rogol, M.D., an endocrinologist at the University of Virginia who assists anti-doping agencies in categorising performance-enhancing substances, says that deer antlers do contain “growth factors” but it is a huge leap of faith to talk about an extract doing anything beneficial for human beings, whether it’s slowing ageing, developing muscle, or repairing tendons, “the [amounts of proteins being absorbed using the spray] would be vanishingly small. In humans, I can’t believe it could be effective”.2 I have also read the following questions which do make reasonable points, “Is there a good reason not to celebrate a drug that can shorten an athlete's recovery from a serious injury, rather than demonising it as unethical? How is an aging athlete using growth hormone to extend his career any different from any one of us taking a blood-pressure lowering drug to extend our life?”3
But surely this misses the point? Singh took a banned substance and under Section One of the Anti-Doping Program Manual, “[A player] is strictly liable whenever a prohibited substance is in [his] body.” As part of Singh’s admission on 30 January he said he was “co-operating fully with [the PGA Tour’s] review of this matter” and yet as to date, over two months later, no action has been taken against Singh and he continues to compete on the Tour. I do not see how this can be viewed as anything other as completely unacceptable from a governance perspective. It also highlights golf’s laissez-faire attitude to the integrity of the game, particularly as regards anti-doping.
The sport, and it’s various governing bodies, do not seem to appreciate that a perception of being clean is just as important as it actually being so. This was highlighted by the words of the controversial PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem who on the 24 February, when questioned why the Tour had not yet taken any decisive action, had this to say, “Candidly if you just look at it, there’s no time urgency here, because if action is taken it will be reported. If no action is taken, it won’t be reported, and that’ll be the end of that. I’m not concerned about that.” Well he should be concerned! It is an offence punishable by a one-year suspension and every dollar Singh makes in prize money while the cloud hangs over him deprives another member of the Tour from making a legitimate living. The PGA Tour, and other governing bodies in the game, are repeatedly criticised for a lack of transparency in their handling of disciplinary issues, whether related to breaches of the Rules of Golf, anti-doping or match-fixing for instance (see the handling of Tiger Woods drop at the Masters).
Golf only began to take anti-doping seriously, introducing a global testing regime of sorts, when it was required to do so to gain entry to the Olympics, where it will be appearing at the 2016 Games in Rio (if the course is ever finished). Yet players are not tested to anywhere near the same level as in other sports and urine tests are used rather than the more comprehensive blood testing. It is true that Singh has never failed a test, as the Tour has admitted they do not test for IGF-1 because it does not feel comfortable with the reliability of such testing, but this is irrelevant as he has admitted to taking it.
The sport’s half-hearted (at best) approach to anti-doping regulation is particularly concerning because golf has “an increasingly widespread gym culture in the search for extra distance and hugely lucrative incentives to return ever more quickly from injuries”.4 Singh’s presence at this past weekend’s prestigious Masters tournament, of which he is a previous winner, has been an embarrassment to his fellow competitors and other stakeholders.
The proposed ban on ‘anchoring’ putters, equality and the new Tiger Woods penalty affair all dominate the governance agenda in golf more so than the threat of doping. They shouldn’t, Doping has the potential to affect a wider proportion of professionals and, as a start, the PGA Tour need to come out loud and clear in the Singh deer antler affair as soon as possible.
1 PGA Tour Anti-Doping Program Manual, January 2013
2 ‘The Truth about Deer Antler Spray’, Markham Heid, MensHealth.com, 3 February 2013
3 ‘Of Deer Antlers and Imaginary Steroid Scandals’, Jonathan Marler, Bloomberg.com, 6 February 2013
4 ‘It should cost Vijay Singh deer’, Neil Squires, Express.co.uk, 9 April 2013
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About the Author
Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.