The latest issue of Sports Illustrated reads more like science fiction than sports reporting. In an article about the company “Sports with Alternatives to Steroids” – or S.W.A.T.S – SI’s David Epstein and George Dohrmann write about holographic stickers, “beam ray” light bulbs, and supplement sprays made from deer antlers. The article includes allegations that Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis violated NFL policies by using some S.W.A.T.S. products. David Epstein spoke with Bill Littlefield.
BL: S.W.A.T.S is based in Birmingham, Ala. and is run by Christopher Key and Mitch Ross. You describe Ross as an “erstwhile male stripper and admitted former steroid dealer.” Tell us a bit about these guys and their company.
DE: Mitch founded this company, S.W.A.T.S. He is a long-time weight lifter and had been heavily immersed in gym culture and those sorts of things and training and some years ago started using technology – what he calls frequency technology – basically things like stickers that have holograms on them that people purport to program with frequencies that your body can then absorb and produce certain nutrients and things like that. And Mitch kind of decided that he could use this kind of technology to solve all the ills of athletes from pain and arthritis to performance enhancement. And so he and Christopher Key, just out of the little back room of a gym outside of Birmingham, started making products and devising ways to get them to some of the most famous athletes in the world.
BL: All right, David, before we get any further, is S.W.A.T.S still in business?
DE: S.W.A.T.S is still in business. I think their phone’s sort of ringing off the hook right now. They’ve had some problems in recent years because their business model was to use sort of the testimonials of elite athletes, but when they were implicated in a positive drug test in 2011 that became problematic and all the athletes they were working with wanted their names sort of disassociated.
BL: What were the main products S.W.A.T.S offered athletes and what are their alleged benefits?
DE: Well they sort of have two main groups of products. Their original thing was these stickers, these hologram stickers, that supposedly have these frequencies. And then they have the deer antler spray which is the more controversial thing which is an extract made from the thin film of skin that grows over deer antlers and that has a banned substance in it, and they put it in a spray and tell guys to spray it under their tongues.
BL: Is there any science to support their claims?
DE: None that we could find. So I took their stickers into a lab at the NYU Polytechnic Institute and not only did they not emit any frequencies or have any kind of electronics in them, but the adhesive on the back of the stickers actually act as an insulator, so, even if they did, it would have blocked transmission to the body. So nothing there. And from the deer antler spray, the banned ingredient, which is called insulin-like growth factor, is supposed to be injected if somebody really wants it to work well, so it’s not promising.
BL: The part of your reporting that’s gotten the most attention this week is your description of a conversation between Ray Lewis and Mitch Ross of S.W.A.T.S after the Ravens linebacker injured one of his triceps. Tell us about that call.
DE: In October, Ray Lewis tore his triceps, and it looked like it might be the end of his season and maybe the end of his career. Mitch had given him some products kind of over the years and texted him when he saw that injury, and they got on the phone later that night. And at first you hear Mitch start asking what sound like diagnostic questions, you know, ‘How much range of motion do you have? Tell me how far down your arm it is. You know, on a scale of one to 10, what’s your pain like?’ Those sorts of things. And Ray starts telling him, and Mitch says, ‘No problem, buddy, we’re going to have this fixed right away,’ basically. And he starts telling him, ‘OK, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to put the stickers on, you know, you’re going to start taking deer antler velvet pills, you’re going to spray the deer antler spray under your tongue every two hours, you’re going to sleep with this oscillating light bulb on that has special frequencies.’ And Ray Lewis basically sort of says, ‘All right, all right, I’ve still got some of the stuff, send me much more. I’ve got to get on this right away because I’ve got to get back to playing.’ And Mitch sent him that stuff.
BL: Lewis is far from the only high-profile athlete to deal with S.W.A.T.S — your article describes Christopher Key making his sales pitch to LSU football players just before last year’s BCS title game. You also know ties to Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour and to golfer Vijay Singh. Were you surprised to find out how many athletes had turned to this two-man operation?
DE: I absolutely was. Frankly I didn’t believe it when they started telling me who their clientele were, and I sort of passed it off as, ‘They’re just trying to pitch me on this stuff,’ but then every single one of those guys they named who I then went to verified that they did indeed know them and they had worked with them. And the players who were retired had no problem openly talking about it. The players who were still active obviously were less likely to respond positively to my questions.
BL: You know it strikes me that if these products, the stickers and the deer antler spray under the tongue, are as bogus as they seem to be, these guys really maybe didn’t break the rules of their sport. They’re just idiots.
DE: I know the focus is on Ray Lewis because of the timing of the story, and we didn’t think it would play out this way. We never thought the Ravens would still be playing, to be quite honest, but, yes. You know I do sports science and medicine writing and I’ve written a number of articles about pseudoscience and sports and how the voracious appetite of athletes to have any incremental edge necessarily pushes them to the fringe of science and medicine because they’re not content to kind of go for things that are proven that other guys can get, so they end up with this pseudoscience. So clearly some of these athletes were trying to get things that they knew they weren’t supposed to have. You can hear in some of the conversations we quote, you know one of the players, [Buffalo Bills DE] Shawne Merriman, when Mitch asks him, ‘Hey, you can have all the product you want, but will you tell the truth when people ask if you’re using it?’ And he says, ‘I’m not going to lie to you, I won’t, I can’t go against the NFL right now.’ So I don’t think he probably got much benefit from this product but he obviously felt like he was doing something illicit.