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January 30, 2013

SWAT says Tide players used banned substance

TUSCALOOSA | The co-owner of a controversial sports supplements company claims that more than 20 University of Alabama football players on the 2009 national championship team and others on the 2011 national title team used his company's products, at least one of which - deer antler extract - contains a substance that has been banned by the NCAA.

No UA players, however, failed NCAA-mandated testing for performance-enhancing substances after the 2011 team's Bowl Championship Series title victory over LSU, Tidesports.com has learned.

The only player who failed an NCAA drug test after UA's 2009 national championship victory over Texas failed the test for marijuana and not for performance-enhancing drugs.

Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday in an online story that Alabama players, along with players at Auburn University and several notable professional athletes, were clients of Fultondale-based Sports With Alternatives to Steroids.

In an interview Wednesday with Tidesports.com, Christopher Key, co-owner of the company, declined to name the Alabama players he claims used SWATS' products, including deer antler extract, in 2009.

As for 2011, the SI story described a video of UA players, including defensive players Quinton Dial, Adrian Hubbard and Alex Watkins, meeting with Key, reportedly recorded in the team's New Orleans hotel in the two nights before UA's national championship game against LSU.

The SI story said the video shows Key distributing products to the players for free but does not specify if his handouts included the deer antler product.

According to the story, Key told the players that he would deny that they were provided for free and say that players paid for them.

"I went to the hotel and was there a couple days," Key told Tidesports.com. "Ballplayers would come in before practice, after practice, hang out, chit chat, drink the water, sit under the light and just go in and out."

Watkins later provided a video testimonial for the company - after his eligibility at UA expired - that was posted on YouTube. Watkins claimed on the video that he and other players used deer antler extract provided by SWATS during the 2011 season.

Key said no Alabama players from the 2012 team, which also won a BCS national championship this month, used SWATS' products.

The company's most controversial product is deer antler extract spray and pills, which contain IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). IGF-1 is among the NCAA's banned substances.

The company also produces modified water, light therapy and hologram chips that are attached to the skin with adhesive - none of which contains IGF-1 - with claims of performance enhancement.

The Alabama athletic department's trouble with SWATS dates back several years. UA released two cease and desist letters on Tuesday, one dated 2009 and the other 2012, which were sent to Key (2012) and SWATS co-owner Mitch Ross (2009). Those letters requested that SWATS not use Alabama players' names or likenesses in promotions or advertising, which could jeopardize a player's NCAA eligibility.

Tidesports.com has learned that SWATS representatives stayed in the same hotel as the UA team several times in recent years before football games but were removed at the behest of UA officials when they were discovered.

The letters also asked that SWATS owners approach UA's athletic training staff with their products, rather than going directly to players with them.

"You can't keep me from selling a product to one of your ballplayers. You don't own them," Key said. "If they want to buy a product, they can buy a product. You can't keep me from doing business. We still live in a free country last time I checked, I thought."

Key said SWATS has never used any college athletes' names or likenesses for promotional purposes until after their playing eligibility had expired.

"UA has been aware of this situation for some time, and we have monitored this company for several years," UA spokesperson Deborah Lane said in a prepared statement released Tuesday. "They have twice ignored cease and desist letters sent by our compliance office. We have maintained consistent education of our student-athletes regarding the substances in question and will continue to do so."

NCAA bylaws prohibit extra benefits for players, and a promise of a future endorsement for such a benefit could be deemed an NCAA violation. According to NCAA bylaw 16.02.3, an extra benefit is "any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution's athletics interests to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete's relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by NCAA legislation."

According to Key, who is a UA graduate, players on Alabama's 2009 and 2011 teams who used SWATS products paid full price for them.

Key also claimed that he showed SWATS products to Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran and trainer Jeff Allen in the summer of 2009 but was unable to convince them of their benefits.

"They said they tried (a holographic chip product) on a few of their athletes, but were not interested," Key said. "What they didn't realize was, there were several athletes I'd already been working with on the team and they were using the products, and they continued to use the products all the way through the 2009 national championship run."

Key said he now wishes he had not shown the video of his meeting with UA players before the Alabama-LSU game for the BCS title, which was taped with a pen camera, to SI.

Key declined to replay the video for Tidesports.com.

According to Key, several players from the 2008 team, including center Antoine Caldwell, tackle Andre Smith, running back Glen Coffee and linebacker Rolando McClain, were given SWATS products for use that season in exchange for a promise of endorsement after the players' college careers had ended.

"This goes back to 2008, me and my partner worked with Alabama (players) who had promised to give an endorsement at the end of the season. When the end of the season came in '08, every one of them said, 'Look, I talked to my agent, and we have to get paid,' " Key said. "They used the product, but then when the time came, they'd promised to give us an endorsement and then chose not to."

Calls placed to Coffee and Caldwell for comment were not returned. Messages were left for agents representing McClain and Smith and also were not returned.

The fact that no UA players tested positive for PEDs after the 2011 championship game, however, is of no surprise to Key.

"IGF-1 synthetic is a no-no, but you can't ban natural IGF-1," Key said. "You'd have to keep every one of those athletes away from milk and meat. Can you do that? Can you enforce that? No, you can't. That's why the NCAA needs to educate itself on the difference between synthetic and natural. ... These ballplayers have done nothing wrong. They have found a good supplement that is natural and will never cause them to fail a drug test and perform at a high level. What is wrong with that?"

While Alabama players' PED testing was clean, Key's claim that no SWATS product can produce a positive test has been disputed in court. According to the SI story, former St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora sued SWATS over a positive test for a different substance - methyltestosterone - and was awarded $5.4 million in a default judgment in 2011. According to Vobora's lawsuit, his attorneys had the deer antler spray tested for methyltestosterone with a positive result.

Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.

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