Athletes Peddling Dubious Health Treatments
Despite the celebrity status, big-name athletes seem to have more cache with average Americans than their cohorts from Hollywood or the Executive Suite. Maybe it’s because so many of the most recognizable names in sports grew up in the same modest neighborhoods we were raised in, or it could be the fact that their success is tied to the fortunes of our favorite teams.
Regardless of the reason, this unique combination of fame and trust makes athlete product endorsements a no-brainer for businesses trying to establish a lucrative market for their products.
A great example is the Gatorade brand—the company wouldn’t give a superstar athlete like Derek Jeter a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal if making just any celebrity, such as actor Gary Busey, the face of it was just as effective a strategy.
Athletes connect with consumers in a way other famous faces simply cannot. When businesses and athletes use this connection to sell sports drinks and beef jerky, the result can be obnoxious but rarely gratuitously irresponsible or even dangerous.
But when athletes use their fame to help a company sell herbal supplements or some other medically dubious product, the innocuous marketing partnership suddenly feels a little more sinister. These are athletes peddling dubious health treatments.
Building on the four medals he won four years earlier in Mexico City, at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, American swimmer Mark Spitz stunned the world by earning an unprecedented seven gold medals in a single Olympics. It was a record that stood 40 years until Michael Phelps topped it in 2012.
As one of the first athletes to monetize his success through a series of lucrative endorsement deals, the always-enterprising Spitz was ready to capitalize on the Phelps-adjacent spotlight.
That summer he used an interview with Lynn Hoppes for ESPN.com to promote Ageless Male, a supplement that boasts a mysterious herb that supposedly boosts testosterone naturally.
“It allows you to be more vibrant and it supports a healthier lifestyle,” parroted Spitz. Dubbed a “fountain of youth” by New Vitality, the oft-sued company that produced Ageless Male, the claim was that the supplement was “the key to unlocking a stronger libido, a more efficient metabolism, and tons of energy and life-force.” Oh OK, that sounds legit.
Speaking of the oft-sued company New Vitality, retired Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann got involved in 2012 by agreeing to endorse something called Super Beta Prostate. Touting “life-changing” benefits, the supplement promised to “alleviate symptoms of an enlarged prostate,” of which there are many.
Such claims were too good to resist for the two million men who purchased Super Beta Prostate, many on the advice of Theismann. Class-action lawsuits against New Vitality revealed the product was created by “a convicted felon who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute PCP,” per YourLawyer.com, and insisted it wasn’t just ineffective, but also unsafe.
In addition to an unlicensed doctor who appeared in the commercials, Theismann was also targeted “for breach of warranties and false advertising,” per David McAfee of Law360.com, because “he does not use the product and has not been diagnosed with with BPH or its symptoms,” as written on Truth in Advertising's website. Not much has come of the suits as yet, but litigation is ongoing.
In March 2011, (then) Angels center fielder Vernon Wells announced a partnership with Physician’s Nutraceutical Concepts (PNC), a nutrition-pharmaceutical company based in Florida. According to a PNC press release, per Reuters, he was tapped to “co-develop and serve as spokesperson for its BodyCustom line of products,” which are marketed to professional athletes.
Said Wells, “I am witness every day to professional and recreational athletes alike who are confused when they strive to optimize their nutritional status in order to enhance performance, recovery, and healing. What BodyCustom products do is take the guesswork out of supplementation.”
Apparently it wasn’t something Wells was especially passionate about, given the relationship with PNC and BodyCustom seemed to have fizzled out within months.
Deer antler spray became a hot topic of discussion in early 2013, when SI.com reported (h/t NFL.com's Kareem Copeland) that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis allegedly attempted to acquire the banned substance to aid in recovery from a torn triceps.
Unwittingly, Lewis immediately became the celebrity face of deer antler spray, though it was former Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson who once had an official relationship with a company peddling it.
Jackson dissolved his endorsement deal at the request of the NFL in 2011 but publicly apologized for introducing Lewis to the company’s co-owner, presumably the link between the two. It should be noted that Lewis flatly denied the accusations, although a report from ThePostGame.com's Eric Adelson at the time suggested he was among a number of NFL players who had received the spray.
So what is deer antler spray, and how does it work? According to National Geographic's Christine Dell'Amore, it’s “made from male deer antlers during the stage when antlers are covered in soft fuzz, the unproven performance enhancer is often used by athletes who believe it helps heal cartilage and tendon injuries more quickly and boosts strength and endurance.” But mostly because Hue Jackson said so.
Former NFL wide receiver Brad Pyatt, whose career spanned an epic 16 games over two seasons with the Colts, is the founder of MusclePharm, a sports nutrition company that has become synonymous with actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose signature product line is carried by retail nutrition giant GNC.
Buoyed by celebrity endorsements from NFL quarterback Michael Vick and fading golf great Tiger Woods, in 2014 MusclePharm boasted a projection upward of $195 million in net sales. The company has come under increasing scrutiny in 2015, named by Forbes' Alex Morrell in March among a number of companies being sued for spiking their supplements with “cheap fillers that they’re passing off as protein.”
Two months later in May, Bloomberg's Caleb Melby and Brandon Kochkodin reported the company paid its founder, Pyatt, “more than $200,000 for golf bags, jewelry, clothing, spa tabs and other perks in 2012 and 2013.” Apparently, MusclePharm is “under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission” for its business practices.
In June 2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Don Walker reported that former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who retired after the 2010 season, had embarked on a potential new career as an “infomercial pitchman.”
Citing his personal history with pain and “narcotics use,” Favre, who was once addicted to prescription painkillers, bloviated on SiriusXM radio (h/t Walker) about the supposed pain-relieving magic of Rx Pro, a cream he said had, as Walker put it, “given his body a new life.”
The gunslinger’s ties to the company that manufactured the product went beyond a simple endorsement contract; he was also an investor in the Mississippi-based World Health Industries.
After claiming on Sirius XM's NFL show that Rx Pro would, as written on scpr.org, “'revolutionize' the treatment of sports injuries” and could even “help military veterans with all kinds of problems,” it was more than a little disconcerting to learn the cream, which you could supposedly only get with a prescription, wasn’t even FDA-approved.
Despite the initial questions and concerns over the legitimacy of its claims, Favre’s relationship with the company remains intact, and it continues to offer a variety of non-FDA-approved remedies to ailments that should probably be treated by a licensed healthcare professional.
With a number of so-called fitness bracelets making unsubstantiated claims on the market—many of which are far more expensive than the Power Balance—the ability to stand out as one of the worst pieces of junk in a sea of junk is actually quite impressive.
After being pressured by Australian authorities for making a number of claims with nothing to back them up, in January 2011 Power Balance was slapped with a class-action lawsuit “seeking damages in excess of $5 million,” per Wired.com's Erik Malinowski. The company was accused of “fraud, false advertising, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment.”
It marked a dramatic fall from grace for a company boasting $35 million in sales that had been named Sports Product of the Year by CNBC’s Darren Rovell (now with ESPN) in 2010. Ultimately Power Balance was hit with a $57 million settlement, which forced it into bankruptcy. “We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims,” confessed the company, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Also targeted in the lawsuit were two of Power Balance’s most famous pitchmen, NBA players Shaquille O’Neal and Lamar Odom, the former of which once swore by the bracelets. But neither had to pay out for the suit; in fact, they were awarded nearly $300,000 (combined) in the Power Balance bankruptcy proceedings, O’Neal as a spokesperson and Odom as an investor.
Retired Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski, who was one of the many athletes implicated in the infamous BALCO steroid ring, is the founder and CEO of Nutrition53 (N53), a company that claims its formulas “deliver more than just nutrition. They deliver better health, greater confidence, and a brighter future. From staying lean to sleeping well, feeling energized and thinking clearly...to help you achieve your very best and live like you mean it.”
According to nootropics (basically unregulated Brain and Nerve Tonic) "expert" Joe Rogan of MMA and Fear Factor fame, per Vice's Dale Eisinger, “Romanowski created his [original] formula [Neuro1] to help himself with the effects of concussions.” As reported by Vice, he “couldn’t find a supplement that helped his deteriorating mental condition resulting from those concussions, so he decided to concoct his own.”
According to Rogan, Romanowski told him, per Eisinger, “I had 20 concussions documented, and another, you can probably say, 200 that were undocumented.” He added that Romanowski said nootropics “have literally been a lifesaver” for him.
Even though there isn’t a shred of evidence to verify the veracity of the plethora of claims made by N53, which are equal parts outrageous and vague, the company has yet to be sued, suggesting this particular brand of snake oil, while ineffective, probably isn’t dangerous.
Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson has become a media darling, thanks in large part to his meticulously manufactured and continuously cultivated underdog story. He’s like the Tiny Tim of the NFL if Tiny Tim were a standout two-sport athlete in high school and college and then drafted into both the NFL and MLB.
A prolonged contract battle turned contentious when Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported Wilson's (seemingly out of character) desire to be the league’s highest-paid player, and Wilson’s white-knight reputation took a hit. It was a dent in his shiny plastic facade that only deepened when Wilson used a feature in Rolling Stone by Stephen Rodrick, which referred to him as “The Chosen One,” to promote Reliant Recovery Water.
As an investor and paid spokesman for the company, Wilson proudly declared the “nanobubbles and electrolytes” in the $3-per-bottle miracle fizzy water could prevent concussions, if not cure them! Responding to the absurd claim during the interview, Mark Rodgers, Wilson’s agent, immediately interjected, “Well, we’re not saying we have real medical proof.” Apparently imaginary non-medical malarkey is more than enough.
Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath suffered what would be the first of seemingly endless knee injuries he would battle throughout his career, with both knees requiring a complete replacement in 1992.
While Namath struggled with the physical toll football took on his body for decades, it wasn’t until recent years he had seriously consider the link between the game and a pronounced decline in his cognitive abilities. Not content to sit back and await his fate, the 72-year-old has taken an aggressively proactive role in raising awareness for brain injury and its treatment.
In ESPN The Magazine’s July 2015 issue, a feature titled “Out of Thin Air” by Peter Keating details Namath’s struggles and the road that led to the creation of the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida.
Unfortunately, the name of the center is substantially more sophisticated than the work being done there. Countless exhaustive studies have been conducted into the effects and potential medical benefits of hyperbaric oxygen treatment, with the overwhelming majority having shown “no lasting benefits for brain trauma in humans.”
Citing the success of the studies, which have no control groups to legitimize claims, and utilizing Namath’s celebrity and enthusiastic testimonials, people have been paying as much as $75,000 for treatment at the center.
To offset the exorbitant cost for patients who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spare, Namath has been leading the fundraising charge, with a $10 million goal. Armed with nothing more than anecdotal evidence, many have questioned the ethics of preying on desperate people (and their bank accounts), using pseudoscience to provide them with the one thing they’re searching for more than anything else: hope.
Player-turned-coach Jimmy Johnson is most famous for his brief but fruitful stint coaching the Dallas Cowboys in the early '90s. Despite a coaching career that spanned over three decades, Johnson is probably almost as famous for another high-profile stint…as a spokesman for Extenze, the “natural male enhancement pill.”
Claims about how the capsules “could promote energy, increased blood flow and libido” were particularly comical, given the major active ingredients of folic acid and zinc oxide. It came as no surprise that Biotab Nutraceuticals, the company that produces Extenze, was eventually hit with a class-action lawsuit because it wasn’t “scientifically proven to increase the size of a certain part of the male body,” as the an advertisement claimed (h/t CBSNews.com).
Johnson was lucky to have avoided the whole messy legal entanglement given that he actually signed on to endorse Extenze “just weeks after the FTC published new rules that hold liable any celebrity who is paid to tout a product they know doesn’t work,” per CBSNews.com. Extenze ultimately paid out over $8 million in court.