Does MLB Drug Policy Affect Supplements?

January 17, 2005

5 Min Read
Does MLB Drug Policy Affect Supplements?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--From its winter meeting here on Jan 13, Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig announced a tougher new drug policy, including more frequent and now random testing as well as an expanded list of banned substances. Among the banned are human growth hormones and supplements proven to be steroid precursors.

The new policy represents an agreement between the league and the players union, and comes on the heels of a tough public relations year involving marquee players and steroid use. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), and President Bush all provided a federal push for the new policy and reacted with reserved praise to MLBs new step in drug policy. The senators were looking for even tougher standards, including provisions against amphetamines (called greenies) and similar substances, which are reportedly rampant in MLB.

Androstenedione (andro) and its numerous related forms have already been banned by both the federal government and MLB. A federal anti-steroid law is set to go into effect on Jan. 20, making it illegal to sell, buy or use prohormones and steroid precursors without a prescription.

Andro blew open the steroid precursor scandal in baseball after St. Louis slugger mark McGwire admitted to using andro during his home run record-breaking season. It was no secret that many players used andro and similar supplements, but in the years that followed, more public attention was paid to big name players and the products they use to get a performance advantage. As imagined, dietary supplements were often in the spotlight.

Barry Bonds tried excuse himself from a steroid scandal during the 2004 season by telling a federal grand jury he thought he took flaxseed oil and an arthritis balm, instead of cream and liquid steroid--tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), which is now banned under the new drug policy. Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery testified that Victor Conte, founder of San Francisco-based BALCO Industries, provided athletes with the liquid steroid, dubbed the clear, in flaxseed oil bottles. Yankees slugger Jason Giambi also relied on the excuse of just taking vitamins and legal supplements when asked about his connection in the Balco steroid scandal. For his part, Conte allegedly struck various deals with Olympic sprinters and baseball players, sometimes involving endorsement deals for Balcos flagship ZMA products.

Balco scandal aside, it is difficult to determine how often players really do mistakenly take a supplement that contains or converts to a banned substance. In December 2004, San Diego fullback Andrew Pinnock served a four-game suspension for violating the NFLs zero tolerance drug policy. Pinnock claimed he mistakenly took a supplement that contained a banned substance, but he was unsure which supplement caused the positive test result.

Resounding public and media opinion has centered on how star athletes must be meticulous about what they put in their bodies and would, thus, know when a supplement could result in positive drug results. Amanda Carlson, M.S., R.D., nutritionist with Tempe, Ariz.-based Athletes Performance, said her training center, which is known for off-season conditioning of major professional athletes, promotes performance enhancement through ethical means. We give the athletes the advice When in doubt, don't take it, she said. We are very selective in the products that we recommend, and most athletes will bring me any new supplement they are thinking of trying.

Earlier last season, MLB took aim at ephedra after Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechlers sudden death was linked to ephedra-related supplements. The stimulant herb and its derivatives were banned by MLB and outlawed by the federal government following deaths reportedly linked to the herbal supplement. Of course, the issue with the ephedra ban has been that it and other responsibly manufactured and marketed health supplements are safe when taken as instructed. However, one popular method of supplementation, especially for major athletes, is to take more than directed.

One legal supplement from which players should not expect to get extra benefit via extra doses is creatine. The effect observed from creatine can be anywhere from an 8 percent to15 percent increase in performance and nothing more, said Conrad Earnest, Ph.D., director of the exercise physiology lab at Dallas-based Cooper Institute. It is not one of those products where the more take, you continue to see benefits. Creatine, popular with baseball sluggers, is not banned by the government and is not on the expanded MLB banned substances list, because it is not a steroid, which was the focus of the new MLB policy. Creatine is a simple amino complex, not a hormone, prehormone, prohormone, wanna-be hormone or whatever people call such products to skirt around the edge of what they really are, Conrad said. It has never been demonstrated to have performance-enhancing effects, said Rob Manfred Jr., executive vice president of Labor relations and human resource for MLB. It is not regulated by the federal government as a steroid or pro hormone; and therefore, is not covered by our agreement. It is a nutritional supplement more akin to a food.

The key measure in the MLBs new zero tolerance policy centers on unannounced, random drug testing of all players and stiffer penalties for test failures; the expanded list of banned substance is an ongoing project. As for any future substances or supplements that hit the market, Manfred reported under the new agreement new substances could be banned if they fall under federal regulation of steroids or if MLBs health advisory panel decides to place it on the banned list.

How does all this affect supplement manufacturers? The desire by athletes to gain a performance edge will likely keep supplements at the forefront of professional sports nutrition regimens, but scrutiny of supplement products is likely to intensify, which will challenge manufacturers to gain the trust of players and trainers. Carlson suggested sports supplement manufacturers use third party testing such as NSF International, which results in a known safety symbol placed on the product bottle. If the product is tested, and we know that the products are safe for our athletes to take, we will recommend them, Carlson said. If the athlete is able to recognize a safe product by a symbol--something used by the NSF testing and league players associations--they will be more likely to buy the supplement, because they trust that it is safe.

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