As you may know, the latest sports doping "scandal" involves a banned performance-enhancing drug derived from—I am not making this up—deer antlers.
Among the high-profile professional athletes who have used deer-antler spray, according to a recent story in Sports Illustrated, are Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and the golfer Vijay Singh. Needless to say, this "revelation" prompted the usual PED hysteria, followed by the usual sanctimonious, ill-informed condemnations.
"I know that it's obviously illegal, whatever it is," said golfer Bubba Watson, presumably without comic intent. "I love this sport. I would never do that."
Singh, for his part, issued one of the most memorable confessions in the history of sports: "I've used deer-antler spray," he admitted. But he didn't know, he continued, that it may have contained a substance that is banned by the Professional Golfers Association.
Don't worry, Vijay. What we have here, in the words of Millard Baker, who has been studying PEDs for more than a decade and runs the website thinksteroids.com, is "an imaginary steroid scandal."
The banned substance that the Sports Illustrated story identified is known as insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1. It's an anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth. It is manufactured synthetically, but it apparently can also be found in microscopic quantities in the velvet of immature deer antlers.
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Does deer-antler spray, in turn, contain trace amounts of IGF-1? Quite possibly. But so do other animal-food products. Sports Illustrated might just as well have rattled off a list of athletes who drink milk. After all, cows are often given bovine growth hormone, which increases the production of IGF-1. For that matter, the FDA allows livestock farmers to inject cattle with synthetic steroids such as trenbolone, a favorite among bodybuilders who are looking to mass up quickly before a competition.
As it happens, the deer-antler controversy is not new. In 2009, the National Football League suspended David Vobora of the St. Louis Rams, who tested positive for a steroid called methyltesterone after using a form of deer antler called The Ultimate Spray. Vobora subsequently had the spray tested, and discovered that it had somehow been contaminated with methyltesterone. (He later successfully sued Sports With Alternatives to Steroids, the company that makes the spray, for $5.4 million.)
But what does this have to do with IGF-1, the banned substance at the center of our deer-antler uproar? Not a whole lot.
You can probably find deer antler at your local natural products store. (That is, if it hasn't already sold out. The Sports Illustrated story evidently created a run on the stuff.) It isn't considered a drug, though it has long been used in Chinese medicine and has more recently become a popular dietary supplement, with aggressive marketing claims that it can help consumers not only build muscle but also slow down the aging process.
The supporting research isn't exactly unequivocal. According to the nonprofit organization Anti-Doping Research, deer antler has been shown in animal tests to increase oxygen uptake, as well as red and white blood cell production. But when it comes to human beings—let alone elite athletes—it hasn't demonstrated much value as a performance-enhancer.
In other words, you're better off getting your IGF-1 elsewhere. And anyway, IGF-1 isn't effectively delivered by pill or spray. It has to be injected.
Yet here we are, in the midst of another steroid scandal, talking about whether it was deer-antler spray that enabled Lewis to come back so quickly from his triceps tear in mid-October and calling Singh "a doper." There's no reason to believe that either of these men benefited from spraying a weird mist under their tongue, just as there's no reason to think there was anything scandalous about them doing so.
Sports Illustrated has been on the PED beat longer than just about anyone. Its first big story on the subject—"Drugs: A Threat to Sport," published in 1969—set the tone for decades of coverage to come. The magazine exposed the widespread use of steroids in college and pro football, "busted" Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, and published the deathbed claim by former NFL defensive end Lyle Alzado that PEDs had caused his inoperable brain cancer. And I haven't even gotten to Lance Armstrong, let alone baseball's steroid era and Sports Illustrated's all-time favorite villain, Barry Bonds.
The magazine has named names, vilified users and shamed leagues. It has broken more than its share of stories. But along the way Sports Illustrated has often lurched toward a kind of biochemical McCarthyism—whipping up a Reefer Madness frenzy over the startling disclosure that some athletes take substances of dubious merit, while enforcing a garrison mentality about drugs in sports that makes it impossible to have an honest, dispassionate conversation about them. With its deer antler story, reason has certainly been impaled.
Meanwhile, all of the important questions remain unexplored. Are we drawing arbitrary distinctions between substances that are OK and substances that aren't? Would our energy be better spent regulating the use of PEDs in sports, rather than pushing for prohibition, which drives athletes into the arms of fly-by-night operations like Sports With Alternatives to Steroids?
Should we try to learn more about the long-term health risks associated with PED use and abuse—which aren't the same thing—rather than developing expensive testing regimes that are rendered obsolete almost the minute they're put into use? Is there a good reason not to celebrate a drug that can shorten an athlete's recovery from a serious injury, rather than demonizing it as unethical? How is an aging athlete using human growth hormone to extend his career any different from any one of us taking a blood-pressure lowering drug to extend our life?
Instead of answers, we have another steroid scandal with all of the usual histrionics, this one more inexplicable than the last. As Bubba might say: It's obviously stupid, whatever it is.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahler on Twitter.