Sports’ Newest Performance Enhancing Drug? Deer Antlers

  • Brad Cohen

It seems there really is no way to stop drug use in sports—not when athletes are willing to go so far to gain a competitive edge. Now, instead of smuggling drugs across international borders or having someone else inject them, some athletes simply ingest crushed deer antlers.

Wait, what?

A number of NFL players have admitted to taking deer antlers for the IGF-1 it contains. IGF-1 a substance similar to human growth hormone.

It’s produced from deer velvet (the soft outer layer of deer antlers) in New Zealand. When stags’ antlers have fully hardened, they rub them against hard surfaces to remove the velvet in order to make their antlers hard and sharp to protect their does. Every spring, the stags shed their hardened antlers and regrow new ones. At this point, the velvet is harvested to be used for medicinal and performance enhancement purposes. The frozen, crushed velvet is taken as powder in a capsule or in liquid-extract form.

So after years of taking synthetic substances created in super-secretive labs, it appears athletes are turning to what is, essentially, Chinese medicine. The stuff has been used for about 2,000 years, and is thought to have a variety of health benefits, including sexual, athletic and sleep enhancement.

This brings up another controversy—while most people don’t have a problem banning synthetic performance-enhancing drugs, is it really so bad to be taking a natural substance?

From Yahoo Sports:

“It’s similar to HGH in that it aids in recovery,” said Jonathan Danaceau, a director at a World Doping Agency approved lab. “It helps build tissue, and strengthen tissue – more than you can ever do by training alone. Any preparation that is not naturally occurring is banned. Taking IGF-1 through deer antler is banned as well.”

Despite it’s illegality by league standards, Cincinnati Bengals safety Roy Williams has admitted to using it. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has allegedly used it, as well.

Lewis got hold of the spray when soon-to-be-Oakland-Raiders-head-coach Hue Jackson (then with the Ravens) supplied it to various players. Jackson got the spray from Sports With Alternatives To Steroids, a company with which he was associated until the NFL recently ordered him to sever ties.

It is extremely hard to detect using current methods of drug testing, which test players’ urine. In order to detect the substance, the NFL would have to switch to blood testing. Even then it would be hard to detect. However, that doesn’t mean players have never been caught. While Williams and Lewis have never tested positive, St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora is suing S.W.A.T.S. because he claims the spray caused him to fail a 2009 drug test.

For now, it appears some players will continue to take the substance, at least until the league switches to blood testing, which isn’t likely to happen any time soon. As Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel points out, the NFL is currently in a serious battle with the players association that could very well end up in a lockout. It might not be a great idea for the league to try to bring blood testing into the negotiations when there are so many other issues between the two sides.

So get used to the idea of players taking animal substances to help them perform better, and the next time you hear a sports reporter use the cliche that an athlete runs like a gazelle, you might have some insight into the reason.