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SNAKE OIL FOR SALE AND THE ATHLETES WHO, SCIENCE BE DAMNED, THINK IT MIGHT WORK
DAVID EPSTEIN
February 04, 2013
FROM THE BACK OF A GYM IN ALABAMA, TWO TRUE BELIEVERS IN THE PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING POWER OF RADIO WAVES AND DEER-ANTLER VELVET AND NEGATIVELY CHARGED WATER PURSUE THEIR DREAM: A FAMOUS ENDORSER
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February 04, 2013

Snake Oil For Sale And The Athletes Who, Science Be Damned, Think It Might Work

FROM THE BACK OF A GYM IN ALABAMA, TWO TRUE BELIEVERS IN THE PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING POWER OF RADIO WAVES AND DEER-ANTLER VELVET AND NEGATIVELY CHARGED WATER PURSUE THEIR DREAM: A FAMOUS ENDORSER

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Key insists S.W.A.T.S.'s products are cutting edge and is satisfied that they work. "We don't have to prove that this is real or not," he says. "What we're looking for is for [science] to prove that it is not real."

The antechamber at S.W.A.T.S. headquarters is festooned with testimonials from famous athletes, including posters of Damon. Ross met Damon through a friend and flew to Tampa for spring training in 2008, when the outfielder was with the Yankees. Ross says he accompanied a group of players on a hospital visit to meet wounded veterans and gave Damon chips for neck pain. "It is my intention," reads Damon's testimonial poster, "to join you in this crusade and become a member of the S.W.A.T.S. Team, as well as encourage other current and former professional athletes to do the same." (Through his agent, Damon says he is no longer affiliated with S.W.A.T.S. and has asked to be removed from its website.)

Of the S.W.A.T.S. duo, Key, 39, is the self-styled science guy. He grew up in Birmingham down the street from Lynn Kenny, who claimed to have cured his own prostate cancer using a Rife-inspired beam ray, then traveled the world, avowing he could cure cancer and AIDS. (In 2001 the FDA wrote Kenny a warning letter informing him that his beam ray claims constituted a "serious violation of the law.") Even in this realm of outlandish assertions, Key—who once listed Kenny, Rife, Nikola Tesla and Jesus Christ as the people who had done the most for humanity—stands apart. The previous hologram sticker company for which he worked, 8IGHT, let him go for exaggerating the benefits of its products. (Key says he believes he was stating their true benefits.) Shortly after that, in late 2009, he joined S.W.A.T.S.

Key has used athlete testimonials and pictures or videos of himself with sports figures to gain instant credibility with prospective clients. Bill Goldberg, a former NFL defensive lineman and pro wrestler, says he started using the full range of S.W.A.T.S. offerings in spring 2012 after "I went to the website and there were [endorsements from] a couple athletes I already know. I respect them and trust their opinions."

In describing his products to SI (as well as to the Alabama players), Key wasted little time in mentioning David Pascoe, an exercise scientist at Auburn. Key says that Pascoe tested the frequency stickers and was "blown away" by the technology. He also claims that Pascoe, through team doctors, allowed him to treat safety Zac Etheridge's broken neck using the light beam and chips, and his range of motion almost completely returned. (Pascoe's recollection is different. He says he met Key, but he never tested frequency stickers or steered him to an injured athlete; Etheridge also denies being treated by Key. At one point Pascoe considered retaining a lawyer if Key did not stop using his name as part of S.W.A.T.S.'s advertising pitch. "I just taught a class on myth busters," says Pascoe. "I don't want anybody thinking I backed this.")

The 45-year-old Ross drives a Suburban that is essentially a rolling S.W.A.T.S. billboard. He considers the compilation of testimonials to constitute quintessential scientific proof. "Another company can say their holograms do what ours do, but where are their testimonials?" he asks between squirts of deer antler. "Elite athletes know their bodies.... You give [our products] to a kick-ass running back, and after he has 200 yards, he says, 'My cuts were great.'"

Ross has been a supreme salesman since he was a child in Atlanta. For a fourth-grade candy sale he told his mother to drop him off at Kmart and leave him there, alone. He spent the day approaching strangers and won a skateboard as the top seller. ("I learned to be outgoing and not afraid to ask," Ross says.) When Ross's mother ordered him to move out as soon as he graduated from high school—he is dyslexic, and struggled at school and at home—Ross relocated to Douglasville, Ga. He started lifting weights every day and, he says, dabbled in steroids.

Between 18 and 20, Ross lived in dozens of places and held as many jobs, including as a salesman at the Gap, a pool cleaner and a male stripper, before settling into personal training at a Bally's in Atlanta. He says he was so successful that he started managing gyms. "I am 21 with 30 employees under me," he says. "At the same time, I am smoking dope, screwing everything, kid on the way. I am a loser." Ross, who has become intensely health-conscious, says he stopped doing steroids himself—he didn't like how the older users looked—but started selling steroids that a friend stole from a pharmaceutical warehouse. In 1998, Ross found Christ. And soon, he found frequencies. A powerlifter friend gave him a frequency patch, and "it put 10 reps on my 225-pound bench," Ross says. "That was all I needed to know."

Convinced that he had a performance enhancer, Ross pounded the pavement. In 2008, he staked out the Alabama football facility, waiting to give players hologram stickers. "Remember Jimmy Johns selling cocaine in the [Alabama] parking lot?" Ross says of the former Tide linebacker. "I was doing the same thing but giving them chips for free."

Also that year, Ross booked a hotel room for the weekend of the NFL combine, right next to Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium. He had begun to build his clientele in '07 with a few NFL players, whom he knew through a Miami trainer. "I could drop their names [at the combine]," Ross says. "It's all about name-dropping, man." In his everyday attire of a sleeveless shirt—his own musculature is part of the advertising—Ross sauntered into the combine and started making friends. He gave out his card, he says, to "probably 100 people." Browns running back Jamal Lewis was about to do a TV interview when Ross tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, you want to improve your performance?" Ross asked. "Take my card." And then he walked away as Lewis began the interview.

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