The Truth About Steroids in Sports

Doping in sports is the eternal cat-and-mouse game, fueled by a culture that rewards winning at all costs.


Few spectacles have divided the sports world quite like the Ray Lewis farewell tour. Arguably the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, Lewis made an improbable comeback from a torn triceps muscle to rule center stage during the Baltimore Ravens’ march through the playoffs—and he didn’t disappoint. From his hip-swiveling pregame revelry to his postgame emotional outbursts—where he clawed the turf like a pilgrim at Lourdes, sobbing benedictions to Football Jesus—it was easy to forget he actually played in the games.

The more Lewis was praised for his on-field heroics, the more the media around him seemed determined to make him pay for his off-field transgressions, specifically his involvement in a double murder that occurred in Atlanta after Super Bowl XXXIV, in 2000. Many believe that Lewis covered up for his entourage, the prime suspects in the killings, and the crime was never solved. The linebacker was forced to cop a plea after initially misleading investigators, earning him a year’s probation from the court and a $250,000 fine from the NFL. Lewis was also taken to task for never directly addressing, much less apologizing to, the families of the murdered men, instead insisting that God works in mysterious ways.

This may explain the glee that exploded from sportswriters—already bored with Super Bowl hype week—when Lewis was linked to a nutritional supplement called deer antler velvet—an over-the-counter product that contains insulin-like growth factor-1, a hormone banned by the NFL and almost every other sports organization, pro and amateur. To Lewis’ detractors, this created the thrilling possibility that the future Hall of Famer had been caught doping.

It explained so much: the roaring aggression, the career endurance, the almost superhuman recovery from a triceps rupture at such an advanced age (37 at the time). This was the “gotcha” moment they were waiting for.

Never mind that knowledgeable sports nutrition scientists dismissed deer antler velvet as a viable performance booster. The trace amount of IGF-1 in these products and the sublingual delivery method make it unlikely that the substance has any significant potency (although the manufacturers may disagree). In fact, last April, deer antler velvet was removed from the official banned list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). If Lewis was jacked up on anything, it didn’t come from Bambi.

In the end, the controversy became just another footnote to the Lewis legend, giving way to America’s great secular holiday, the Super Bowl, where the Ravens, and Lewis, triumphed. The suspected murder conspirator, presumed doper, and gridiron Elmer Gantry had gone out a winner.