Viagra in sports? Athletes will try anything

Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall catches a

Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall catches a ball during warmups before a game against the Minnesota Vikings in Chicago. (Nov. 25, 2012) (Credit: AP)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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What Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall said he "has heard," that some fellow NFL players use Viagra to enhance athletic performance, is nothing new in sports.

More than four years ago, reports that the erectile-dysfunction pill had become popular in Major League Baseball clubhouses dovetailed with several scientific studies to determine whether Viagra in fact offered a competitive edge.

In one case, the World Anti-Doping Agency provided a $90,000 grant that involved giving Viagra to 30 members of the Marywood University lacrosse team in Scranton, Pa. Since the drug facilitates blood flow, physiologists considered it possible that increased cardiac output and more efficient transport of oxygenated fuel to the muscles could aid athletic performance.

The results ultimately were inconclusive and WADA made no move to add Viagra -- the drug's generic name is sildenafil -- to its list of banned substances.

But there is a darker side to anecdotal evidence of Viagra's use by athletes. And it never changes.

"It's reflective of, 'We'll try anything,' " said Dr. Gary Wadler, past chairman of WADA's Prohibited List Committee and professor at Hofstra North Shore LIJ School of Medicine.

Experts in the field often refer to this as the "doping mentality," the willingness of some athletes to ingest virtually any substance or combinations of chemicals on the chance they could be helpful. Aside from awareness of the long-employed therapy of "stacking" different drugs, some sports doctors were alarmed by what they called "vitamin doping" -- a startling over-dosage of legal vitamins -- during the 2000 Olympics.

Now, recent instances of NFL players' positive tests for Adderall have highlighted the frequency of athletes using medications beyond their prescribed intent. Meant for attention deficit disorder, Adderall is banned by sports bodies because it is a stimulant that increases alertness, aggressiveness, reaction time, speed, strength, power and endurance.

Marshall told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I don't know too much about Adderall. I know guys -- it is such a competitive league -- guys try anything just to get that edge . . . . they'll do whatever they can to get an edge. I've heard of some crazy stories. I've heard guys using, like, Viagra, seriously."

Because Viagra was tried on racetrack dogs several years ago, and because studies in Germany and at Stanford University found a slight physiological benefit for cycling and mountain-climbing athletes who took Viagra at extreme altitudes (where there is less oxygen), the word was out that blue pill might be beneficial on the playing fields.

Beyond that, those athletes inclined to seek special elixirs surely were aware that Victor Conte, the steroid guru convicted in the high-profile BALCO case, routinely recommended Viagra as part of drug cocktails in combination with the blood-booster EPO.

There is widespread agreement that, with doping, the psychological aspect could be more powerful than the physical boost. But Conte told the New York Daily News in 2008 that Viagra not only could deliver more oxygen to the muscles but also removed waste products, further increasing muscle efficiency.

All of this is why assurances that the so-called "steroid era" has receded into the past, or expressions of shock that athletes would consider erectile-dysfunction medication for a playing edge, is naïve.

It was roughly 40 years ago, in the early days of debate over the ethics and danger of performance-enhancing drugs, that a top-ranked U.S. weightlifter named Mark Cameron said, "If you could guarantee that eating Brillo pads would make you stronger, there wouldn't be a clean pot within miles of the nearest gym."

Some will try anything.