TUSCALOOSA | Several University of Alabama football players sought out a peddler of alleged - and controversial - performance-enhancing substances and items in the nights leading up to the Crimson Tide's victory over LSU in the Jan. 9, 2012, BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, according to an article in Sports Illustrated.
A story in the Feb. 4 edition of the magazine, posted online Tuesday, looks into the practices and claims of a Fultondale-based business, Sports With Alternatives to Steroids (or S.W.A.T.S.), its owner, Mitch Ross, and employee Christopher Key. The story alleges that the company has provided its wares to players at Alabama, Auburn and LSU, as well as several high-profile professional athletes.
UA sent cease-and-desist letters to Ross in March of 2009 and to Key in October of 2012, requesting that they stay away from Alabama student-athletes and cease using UA athletic images in promoting their products.
"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 statement released to the media 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."
Efforts to reach Ross and Key by telephone were unsuccessful.
The Sports Illustrated article reports that Key filmed his pitch to "a handful" of Alabama players, some of whom brought family members, with a pen camera and showed the video to the magazine's reporter. The gathering took place in Key's room at the New Orleans Marriott on two nights before the BCS game.
Former UA defensive lineman Quinton Dial and current players Adrian Hubbard and Alex Watkins are named in the story as having been at the hotel room gathering. All three played in the national championship game against LSU - which Alabama won 21-0 - although none started and none recorded a tackle.
Key's pitch to the UA players plugged such products as holographic stickers that would block cell phone frequencies, "negatively charged water" that would aid with hydration, an oscillating light bulb that could aid in healing, a powder additive touted for its ability to produce gain of muscle mass and deer antler pills and spray which Key told Alabama players contains IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor, a natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth), a substance banned by the NCAA and all major professional sports leagues.
According to Sports Illustrated, Watkins made a YouTube testimonial that was posted last summer, touting the benefits of several S.W.A.T.S. products, and Hubbard was filmed in the hotel room saying he already had the deer antler spray. The video of the meeting shows Key distributing free samples of the S.W.A.T.S. products to UA players.
The article states that the Alabama coaching staff was unaware of the meetings in the hotel room.
The 2012 letter to Key refers to YouTube videos and states, "To comply with NCAA requirements, to protect its current student-athletes ... the University requests you immediately cease and desist the use of, or reference to, the University of Alabama or any current University of Alabama student athletes ..."
Ross told SI he began hanging around the UA football facilities in 2008 and distributed his holographic stickers to Alabama athletes.
His 2009 cease-and-desist letter also requests that he drop contact with UA players and cites NCAA rules against providing "any benefit or discount that is not available to the public at large," an apparent reference to Ross handing out free or discounted products.
In addition to the Alabama players, the article alleges that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, golfer Vijay Singh and baseball player Johnny Damon are among several high-profile athletes who have used S.W.A.T.S. products.
The article debunks the science behind the products' alleged performance-enhancing abilities - a press release from SI promoting the story uses the header "Snake Oil for Sale" - and points out that Ross is a former male stripper and steroids salesman who has lost a $5.4 million lawsuit award over his alleged performance-enhancement products.
Damien Martin contributed to this story. Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.