ESPN’s Shaun Assael on steroids, supplements and the nervous athlete


In the forthcoming book “Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-Aging Miracles, And a Hercules in Every High School - The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction,” author Shaun Assael provides a detailed chronicle of America’s performance enhancing culture.

As part of that chronicle, Assael gives the “first truly in-depth account of how 1994’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act got passed, and how a crafty group of chemists and salesmen drove a truck through its loopholes,” he told NBJ. A senior writer for ESPN the Magazine, Assael interviewed industry leaders including Champion Nutrition founder Michael Zumpano, and United Natural Products Alliance Executive Director Loren Israelsen for the book.

In an exclusive interview, NBJ spoke with Assael to get an insider’s take on athletes’ current relationship with the supplement industry, and find out what he sees in their future.

Transparency: A new buzz word in sports nutrition

One of the interesting topics for this sports nutrition and weight loss issue is the upcoming Olympics and drug testing, which often ends with an athlete who tested positive for steroids blaming supplements. As an industry, are we better prepared this year than we have been? What should firms be thinking about?

One of the big issues about Beijing is the food supply and the supplement supply and whether the quality controls are such that they can guarantee protein powders – or any of the things that athletes usually take – are going to be untainted. The rule enforced by the World Anti-Doping Agency is that if it’s in your body, you’re guilty. They call it strict liability. As a result, the U.S. skeleton slider Zach Lund got hit with a one-year ban after failing a drug test because he took a baldness medication with steroids in it. The Olympic swimmer Kicker Vencill got a two-year ban for taking a multivitamin that was contaminated with nandrolone. It’s going to be a big problem in Beijing if the athletes can’t be guaranteed that the food they’re eating, or the vitamins they’re taking, are pure.

Do you have any advice for supplement companies?

Make sure that your customers are confident in you. Talk about the steps you’re taking to make your products healthy, and make sure the labels match what is actually in them. The buzz word has to be transparency. Athletes have so much at stake, you have to be aware of what contaminated supplements can take away from them.

That’s interesting because it sounds like athletes are perhaps a more educated and demanding consumer as far as manufacturing and quality control is concerned than the supplement industry world is used to.

Athletes are definitely the supplement industry’s most educated consumers, and they’re getting more educated every day. That’s the reason the industry needs to be transparent. As educated consumers, athletes can reward you and they can punish you. I see a growing litigiousness among those who feel that their careers have been ruined by sloppy manufacturers.

So what are athletes looking for as far as transparency is concerned?

Straightforward labels, websites that show where and how this stuff is manufactured, guarantees. And this isn’t just about pro sports or the Olympics. There is drug testing in college, and, increasingly, in high school, too. America is a drug-tested society.

Are athletes concerned about country of origin? Are we talking about a degree of transparency where they are looking at where ingredients came from – if they came from China for instance?

I don’t know that it’s gotten to that level yet. China’s pharmaceutical industry is multitiered. There are factories that have the latest in American and European technology. So I don’t think it’s fair to label the entire Chinese pharmaceutical industry as tainted.

But, at the same time, I spoke to somebody who talked about getting a batch of creatine powder with little black flecks in it and wondering what that was. He had it analyzed, and it turned out the stuff was made over charcoal in a hut somewhere. It had ash in it. So I do think that the manufacturers have to be concerned.

Are athletes such a well-educated and diligent consumer they would be more open than some others to differentiating between the high quality ingredient factories in China and the lower quality?

There’s only so much you can ask your customers to do. Your customers will either trust you or they won’t. I don’t have enough time in my day to wonder whether this GNC product is made from a good factory in China or a bad factory. I just want that stamp that says it’s good.

The manufacturer has to be the one to worry about the rest. As the manufacturer, you have to ask yourself: do you trust your source in China? Have you traveled there? Have you looked at their factory? What’s your business relationship with them? Are you buying simply on price alone or are you investing a little bit more for quality?

Third-party certification, seals and guarantees

What are your thoughts on the role of third-party certification of supplements?

I think third-party testing is the next frontier because contamination has become such an issue. One of the central characters in my book, Mike Zumpano – who owns Champion Nutrition, which I think is one of the good guys in this sports nutrition field – has gone to that.

Say you have two vats in a manufacturing plant. One is an andro. One is a multivitamin. An andro cloud goes airborne into the multivitamin vat, and boom you’ve taken a tainted supplement.

There are two issues for the manufacturer. One is good public relations. I don’t think anyone wants to be seen as being sued by an athlete whose career came to an end because they took your tainted multivitamin. The second is that athletes are becoming more militant about this. As they see their careers disappearing before their eyes as a result of tainted vitamins, they are suing. It’s just good business practice to prophylactically show that you’ve done everything that you could to prevent contamination. Transparency will go a long way to restoring faith in the supplement industry.

So, athletes suing supplement firms is a growing trend? What are your thoughts about this issue?

As you see athletes losing Olympic eligibility, losing huge dollars in sponsorship because of these contaminated supplements, you’re seeing a rise in militancy. They’re looking for a pocket to reimburse them for their losses. I think that’s good, insofar as it forces the supplement industry to take a look at the contamination problem. It forces the industry to do more to prevent it.

On the other hand, contamination has become something of a rallying cry for the guilty. Whenever a guilty athlete, one who really is taking the steroids, gets caught, the first thing you hear them say is, “it was a tainted supplement, a tainted supplement.” Contamination can be the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Are athletes losing trust in the supplement industry?

No, I just think that we’re in a new phase now. I think that what you’re seeing now is a movement, and I think it’s a good idea, by sports unions – the NflPlayers Association, Major League Baseball Players Association – to stamp certain supplements as approved so the players know that this is something that’s been vetted. Athletes risk a lot when they go into a GNC store. They’re nervous as heck: “Is what I’m about to buy safe? Will it ruin my career?” That’s why you’re seeing this new relationship between unions and supplement companies. It’s a good idea.

A rising debate; an imperative for industry

What are the lasting repercussions of what you call “the long summer of Barry Bonds”?

The long summer of Barry Bonds has shown us the weariness that fans have about steroids. But while there’s fan fatigue, fan upset, there’s also a really interesting debate going on now. Should all of this be legalized so we don’t have to hear about it? Should we fight it even harder? Those who say it should be legalized say, “Look, bats and balls are equipment; you change requirements in bats and balls. Why don’t you just allow steroids? It’s just another piece of equipment.” Others say “no.”

I tend to be the group that says, “No, I don’t believe in that.” There’s a competitive imbalance in sports when steroids are thrown into the equation. Players who don’t use feel compelled to use in order to keep up. There’s nuance here though, and that’s what I think is getting lost.

The nuance has to do with, I think, the great debate this country has to have: Is it ever alright to take steroids in order to feel better? And the answer, I think, should be “yes.” One of the things the book points out is that when steroids were put under the controlled substances list in 1990 by congress there was testimony by both the American Medical Association and the Drug Enforcement Administration that steroids should not be controlled, that they have legitimate medical uses.I think that those legitimate medical uses come out in this whole anti-aging field. While I don’t approve of the use of steroids in sports, I don’t see why a 40 year old man shouldn’t be able to go to an anti-aging clinic and get low doses of testosterone therapy to restore his hormonal balance to where it was in his 20s.

I don’t quite see why the law should prevent that, especially in an age of Botox and breast implants and so much cosmetic surgery. Therein lays the nuance. If, in sports, a player who’s having trouble getting through a long baseball season wants to have a modest dose of testosterone therapy just to allow him to get up in the morning and put his body through the rigors of a long baseball season – not to mention a grueling, brutal football season – I don’t see what the problem with that. There is room for therapeutic use exemptions in sport, but they still are sort of seen as the rare, rare occurrence.

So where’s the nuance? I think the nuance comes from abuse, and I think, to come back to your question of what the lesson of the Barry Bonds’ summer has been, I think that fans don’t want to see players abusing it. They don’t want to see players jacking themselves up and setting new records based on steroid use. But not all steroid use is the same. Some players are just taking modest doses so that they can be healthy through a season, not necessarily to change their performance. I think that’s an issue worth looking at.

So, do you think that we’re reaching sort of a breaking point in this where laws are going to be evaluated?

The reason I wrote this book is as a ticket to a conversation. There have been books about steroid use, but never one that looks at it through a big, broad cultural lens. By the end of the book, I argue steroids have become America’s drug and that we need a re-evaluation. We need to look at our laws. What’s going on in Congress now is a bit of a steroids hysteria fueled by sports. I think a more reasonable re-evaluation of our laws would help.

Having said that, I also think that a small small corner of the supplement industry needs to be held to account for mixing illegal drugs into their supplements and selling them under the radar. And I think until the supplement industry cleans up that corner of itself it won’t have the credibility when it goes to Congress to really have a voice in this debate.

Due out Oct. 23 from ESPN press, Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-Aging Miracles, And a Hercules in Every High School - The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction is available for pre-order at Amazon. com.

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