The names look enticing enough – titles like PowerPack or Turbo Fuel.
Their promises are beneficial — EXTREME ENERGIZER, builds muscle mass fast!
Their effects are noticeable – faster sprint time, more energy for that last squat or bench.
Their possible side effects are frightening – everything from dehydration and diarrhea to elevated blood pressure or heart attacks.
Such is the reality of dietary supplements, a $17.7 billion business that seems as ubiquitous in the sporting world these days as a pair of sneakers or sweat beads.
Endorse them or condemn them, supplements have become as prevalent an element of college athletes’ training regiment as weight lifting and eating properly.
The situation at CSU is no different, where the Ram athletic department has an endorsement deal with Golden-based EAS supplements, the same company that sponsors the Mountain West Conference basketball tournaments.
Like at other institutions, the topic of supplements is a frequent one of discussion around CSU athletic circles.
“In our strength and conditioning department, we are constantly – on a daily basis – fielding questions on supplements from athletes and coaches alike,” said Greg Scanlan, strength coach for CSU athletics. “Often times, athletes will come in with a product and I have to break down the ingredient list individually and compare it to the banned substance list just to make sure.”
This process is necessary, as the NCAA banned-substance list, followed strictly by CSU and other schools, includes nearly 100 substances – most of them hard to pronounce and found in products one might not be aware of.
The Ephedra Controversy
The most controversial – and most talked about – of these banned substances lately has been ephedra, an extract of the Chinese plant ma huang designed to stimulate weight-loss and is energy-boosting and body-building.
Recent deaths of Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer, Northwestern safety Rashidi Wheeler and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler have brought to light the possible damage ephedra can inflict.
Already banned by the NFL, Bechler’s death brought Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to outlaw the product in the minor leagues. The Food and Drug Administration has planned to announce restrictions on the product and U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York has stated he will support legislation to ban the product.
Scanlan said he was not in favor of pulling the drug off the shelves, advocating instead that improper use, not just the product, is often to blame for health problems.
“I don’t condone our athletes using ephedra. Any product that accelerates heart rate or messes with metabolism, like ephedra, scares the death out of me,” Scanlan said. “Do I think our athletes use ephedra from time to time? It wouldn’t be very surprising to me. Any time you’re dealing with 18 to 22 year-olds and they’re bombarded by the media with quick fixes, it’s hard for those individuals to turn that down.”
What Does CSU do?
In an athletic world saturated with the allure of faster, stronger bodies, CSU’s athletic departments have taken extra care to ensure proper and healthy supplementation among its athletes.
Both the strength and conditioning department and the NCAA compliance department at CSU hold meetings and seminars, and produce and post documents for athletes, constantly seeking to educate athletes.
“There are a bunch of seminars athletes are required to go to and there is a list of banned substances in our handbook they give out each year,” said Ashley Augspurger, women’s basketball player at CSU. “The list is huge, so they obviously don’t go through everything, but they seem to be doing all they can to help us know what’s best.”
What’s best, according to Scanlan and his staff, is a whole-food supplement approach, stressing total nutrition. Scanlan said the main goals of supplements given to athletes by the university – which include mainly sports bars, performance protein shakes and Gatorade mixes, all provided by EAS – aim to speed recovery time following workouts, aid in energy and help in gaining of performance body mass.
“It’s important to understand that even though supplements are controversial and are such a hot topic these days, science has shown that there are supplements that are very beneficial to the body,” Scanlan said. “Supplements can give athletes an advantage. They can aid performance and they can do it in a healthy way.”
Even with the proven benefits of supplements, athletes say eating right and working out properly are stressed as more essential than just popping a pill
“I think supplements do help, you see gains you might not see otherwise, but a balanced diet and work ethic in weight room are much more important,” said Drew Wood, a senior CSU football player. “Eating a lot of proteins is probably going to help just as much as anything else.”
Scanlan estimates, on the whole, athletes are using fewer supplements than at any point during the past 10 years.
At the heart of that could be financial issues. At the heart of the NCAA banning so many supplements, Scanlan says, is money, or lack-thereof.
“What was happening was you’d have four or five schools in a conference that could afford every supplement out there,” said Scanlan, who is in his first year at CSU after spending the previous 10 at Big-10 and Pac-10 schools. “Science has shown some supplements are very beneficial. Thus, those schools who could afford everything had an unfair advantage.”
The price of supplements could be a reason many athletes don’t choose to purchase them on their own. Scanlan says in his past experience, athletes have been known to drop $300 to $400 a month on performance-enhancers, a price-tag that has helped the supplement industry increase sales by more than $14 billion over the past 12 years.
How much do they know?
Lack of education is another strong possibility some athletes choose to avoid some supplements.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what the hell ephedra is,” Wood said. “A lot of supplements kind of scare me. There’s nothing to show the long-term effects. I don’t have the same attitude as a whole lot of people. I think most people use whatever they can get their hands on if they think it will help them.”
Such is a big problem for Scanlan, who worries athletes are subjected to sales pitches for quick-fix pills.
“What happens now is, our athletes go down the local health store and purchase supplementation by the advice of someone working behind the counter who’s getting paid to sell supplements,” Scanlan said. “It’s kind of a Catch-22 because there isn’t money here to provide those supplements, but the NCAA’s taken a lot of the power out of the hands of staffs to supplement.”
Buying supplements on their own becomes a guessing game for athletes. Even with lists posted and seminars attempting to make athletes aware of illegal substances, something as low profile as an energy drink purchased at a corner store can contain illegal amounts of caffeine.
Even pro athletes have had problems recognizing what’s illegal and what isn’t in their diet. Julius Peppers, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2002, tested positive for ephedra and was suspended for four games during his rookie season after taking a product he knew nothing about.
“It’s a real hard line to balance for student athletes because it’s so easy sometimes to take something that they don’t really realize it’s illegal,” Augspurger said.
Since it’s nearly impossible to track what athletes will use what supplements with their own money, strength staffs stress proper use.
“Bottom line, at the heart of the ephedra issue in my mind’s eye is abuse of the product,” Scanlan said. “Athletes sometimes get the idea that more is better. No science has shown that ephedra, when taken properly, has contributed to health problems. It’s like trying to ban firearms. Guns don’t kill people, it’s the people using those guns that kill.”
It’s hard for anyone, not just athletes, to turn away from a product guaranteeing a slimmer form and a sexier appearance in pill-popping form.
Of the $17.7 billion pulled in by dietary supplements in 2002, only an estimated $1.7 billion was from sports-nutrition supplements.
Average citizens resting on their couches are being pulled in just as easily as an Adonis-like athlete.
“The craze is everywhere. It’s the misconception that only athletes are using these products, but it’s housewives and overweight people who want that magic pill to get them healthy too,” Scanlan said. “Supplement companies don’t make their money on athletes. They make their money on 28-to-45-year-olds that are trying to regain their youth.”
In a society stressing fitness and sexiness, who can blame an everyday person for desiring the body of an athlete?
“It’s the nature of college athletics – win as many games as you can, compete at the highest level possible, be the best you possibly can be – just as it’s ingrained in our culture that if you have something at the tip of your hands that’ll help you be better, you’re going to take advantage of it.”
The trend has some athletes concerned for misuse among everyday people almost more than their teammates.
“It’s not just in athletics, that’s like human nature. You see a million ads on TV for Metabolife or some stupid diet pill that’s going to make you lose 15 pounds in two weeks and that’s disturbing to me,” Wood said. “Eat right and go exercise. If you want something bad enough, you have to work for it. It’s a disturbing reality that people want the easy way out. Supplements aren’t a bad thing, but if that’s what you’re counting on to get you through, you’re going to come up short for sure.”