Deer antler spray is one of the stranger-sounding performance-enhancing substances banned by the NFL, and a new report suggests Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis may have used it while recovering from a triceps injury.
Lewis and the Ravens have both told ESPN that he never used the substance, but speculation is growing that he may have been connected to it, and it is coming under increased scrutiny as the new report makes the rounds.
The spray is not as well-known as anabolic steroids, HGH (Human Growth Hormone), or a slew of other popular PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), but NFL policy bars players from using it, as it contains a substance banned by the league called IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor-1).
Lewis, who has never tested positive for the little-known substance, allegedly sprayed deer antler spray -- also known as deer antler velvet -- under his tongue every two hours and took 10 deer antler pills daily to boost his recovery from a triceps injury sustained during an October game against the Dallas Cowboys. This is according to a blockbuster Sports Illustrated investigation that was posted online Tuesday. The hard-hitting report comes just days before Lewis is slated to play against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVLII, his last game before he retires from the league.
And the Ravens and Lewis are hoping to get out in front of the SI profile. Ravens Vice President of Communications Kevin Byrne told ESPN the following on Tuesday:
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"Ray has been randomly tested for banned substances and has never failed a test. We have never been notified of a failed test. He has never been notified of a failed test," Byrne said, adding that the team spoke with Lewis Tuesday morning about the SI report, and that "he denied using the substance discussed in the article, and we believe him."
Deer antler spray and pills are known to contain small amounts of deer IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor-1), which is what the liver converts HGH into, resulting in artificially enhanced muscle regeneration and growth that has made NFL ban the use of HGH and deer antler spray.
The products are made by SWATS (Sports With Alternatives To Steroids), a small company of two men including Christopher Key, who was quoted in the Sports Illustrated report saying the following to members of the University of Alabama football team the night before the team faced Louisiana State University in the 2012 BCS national championship game in an attempt to get them to use the company's products:
"We have deer that we harvest out of New Zealand," Key said. "Their antlers are the fastest-growing substance on planet Earth . . . because of the high concentration of IGF-1. We've been able to freeze dry that out, extract it, put it in a sublingual spray that you shake for 20 seconds and then spray three [times] under your tongue. . . . This stuff has been around for almost 1,000 years, this is stuff from the Chinese."
The aggressive company has pushed its range of products on a number of other college and pro sports teams and players, often running into controversy along the way, according to Sports Illustrated, but it isn't even clear that deer IGF-1 works on humans.
DeerAntlerSpray.org makes a full-throated defense of the substance's ability to help athletes:
"The side effect of this is that by using deer antler spray one can improve athletic performance, simulate the metabolism, improve the overall condition of the heart, and help fight off colds and flu, the site says. "By allowing the body to burn off more stored sugars and require the burning of fat stores to fuel increased muscle use, this spray can do a lot in way of rejuvenation on the body. This may help with nerve damage repair as well."
And a U.S. study cited by CNBC in 2011 as perhaps the "most important" study on the substance so far seems to suggest that it has at least some positive impact on athetes' performance:
"A group of scientists took 32 male weight lifters and gave half of them New Zealand Deer Antler Velvet and half of them a placebo for 10 weeks," CNBC reports. "While the placebo group didn't show any difference in bench or squat tests, those given deer antler velvet saw an increase of 4 percent on the bench press and 10.1 percent on the squat test as compared to the placebo group. The scientists also reported that there was a 'significant improvement in aerobic capacity' with the group that was taking deer antler velvet."
Lewis spoke with SWATS (popularly written as S.W.A.T.S.) owner Mitch Ross within hours of his October arm injury, according to Sports Illustrated.
"It's bottom, near the elbow," Lewis said in reference to his injury, according to the SI report. Ross discussed the injury with him for a short while, then prescribed a combination of scientifically questionable holographic stickers, a beam-ray light intended to regerate tissue and relieve pain, the 10-pill-a-day deer antler program, which supposedly "rebuild[s] your brain via your small intestines," and SWATS' Ultimate Spray deer antler velvet spray, SI reported.
Lewis reportedly later told Ross, "just pile me up and just send me everything you got, because I got to get back on this this week."
Deer antler velvet is harvested from a specific type of New Zealand deer, according to DeerAntlerSpray.org, a site of unverified veracity:
"This is a product made from Red Deer farmed in New Zealand. Male Red Deer produce antlers each year, and these antlers are removed from the animal while they are still 'velvet' covered to keep the males from injuring each other," the site reads. "This material can be taken from the deer just like a fingernail can be removed by certificated farmers and Veterinarians, leaving the animal unharmed. Because antlers grow at an astounding speed, the entire harvest takes just a few weeks. After removal the velvet deer antler is freeze dried and processed into various forms from powders and pills to sprays."
And it's common enough that you can buy a bottle of it on Amazon.com for just $30. As the Sports Illustrated report continues to get attention, deer antler spray will become the focus of increasing scrutiny. Time will tell whether it leads to disciplinary action against Lewis, or anyone else implicated in the article, and whether it will grow into a full-on scandal.