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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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His pitch to Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson was more in-depth. Ross name-dropped college teams and then performed the cellphone/balance test. "Jamal and Coach Jackson followed up, and that's all it took," Ross says. "[Lewis] went through about 40 bottles of the [deer-antler] spray." (Lewis said, "I didn't use any spray or anything like that" through a spokesman for the Ravens, with whom he started his career.)

Ross says Jackson invited him to organized team activities at the Ravens' facility, where Ross handed out chips to players. The 2008 season was a turnaround year for Baltimore and, according to Ross, Jackson was soon calling him for more products. (Jackson did not return a message from SI asking about S.W.A.T.S.)

In 2010, after Jackson was hired as coach of the Raiders, Ross met him in a Nashville restaurant on the eve of the opener against the Titans to videotape a testimonial. In the interview, which Ross put on YouTube, they discuss what would happen if Jackson failed to provide Ravens with the stickers. "Guys would be pissed off," Jackson says. "Ya know, 'Coach didn't put our chips in the locker.'"

Jackson brought S.W.A.T.S. products with him to Oakland. "Our players swear by them," he says in the video. "You can't have anything in this league that is considered a PDA [sic].... I think anything that can help your athlete perform legally better, I think everybody's for it."

Linebacker Gary Stills was a Raven when he started using the deer-antler spray, according to court documents. When he moved to the Rams in 2008, he shared a bottle with linebacker David Vobora, the final pick of the '08 draft—that year's Mr. Irrelevant. Vobora soon gave a lie to that label, earning a starting job in St. Louis.

In June 2009, Vobora failed an off-season test for the steroid methyltestosterone and was suspended for four games. He then had the bottle of S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray (retail price: $64) tested. According to court documents filed by one of Vobora's lawyers, it tested positive for methyltestosterone. Vobora's lawyers sent a letter to Ross offering to not file a lawsuit if Ross paid Vobora $1 million. (One of Vobora's lawyers later claimed that Vobora only wanted an apology and for the spray to be removed from the market.)

When Ross did not reply, Vobora sued S.W.A.T.S. in May '10, alleging a lack of quality control that allowed the spray bottle to be contaminated. (The S.W.A.T.S. spray is manufactured by a third party and—as is customary in the sports-supplement industry—simply branded as unique with a S.W.A.T.S. label.) When Ross declined to hire a lawyer to represent S.W.A.T.S., Vobora, without a trial, was granted a default victory and a $5.4 million award. "Today, I've been proven innocent," Vobora said on June 20, 2011. Ross shuttered his business and reopened six months later under a different corporate name, a strategy he hopes will forestall collection.

Before the lawsuit, the S.W.A.T.S. website displayed testimonials from two dozen NFL players. The chips and spray also had recently begun to spread through golf after a friend with whom Ross sold Christmas trees introduced him to a PGA caddie. In short order, Ross says, the caddie "was passing me around the golf world like a prostitute." As soon as the Vobora verdict landed, though, the NFL, the PGA and MLB sent notice to athletes that the S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray—which had been advertised as containing the banned IGF-1, an ingredient common to all brands of deer-antler spray—had been implicated in a positive drug test. Ross's cellphone buzzed once more with calls from athletes asking to have their names removed from the S.W.A.T.S. website. (It had buzzed also back in January 2011 after Jackson was ordered by the NFL, which prohibits coaches from having relationships with supplement companies, to cut ties with S.W.A.T.S.) Overnight, the tiny company that marketed itself as a legal alternative to steroids and that depended on player testimonials became as untouchable for pro athletes as an electric fence.

(Vijay Singh, however, remains a vocal supporter. In November, Singh paid Ross $9,000 for the spray, chips, beam ray and powder additive—making him one of the few athletes who is compensating S.W.A.T.S. He says he uses the spray banned by the PGA "every couple of hours ... every day," sleeps with the beam ray on and has put chips on his ankles, waist and shoulders. "I'm looking forward to some change in my body," Singh says. "It's really hard to feel the difference if you're only doing it for a couple of months.")

Ross and Key went from filming testimonials with athletes and coaches to clandestinely videotaping their interactions. In a phone call six months after the Vobora verdict, Jackson told Ross that he was sending Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour his way. (Through a Raiders spokesman, Seymour declined to speak to SI.) "I said [to Seymour], 'Hey, look, you gotta talk to Mitch,'" Jackson said in the call. " 'I can direct you, but I can't be involved in it.'"

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