In the world of sports, one of the most fiercely debated topics does not include a single team or player. Rather, it’s about how these players achieve the magnificent athletic feats they so often do, like smashing towering home runs or flying down the lane for a windmill slam. These athletes use certain substances to give them the athletic edges needed to produce highlights, but there is a growing debate over how much of an advantage is too much.
From fans all the way to academic scholars and legal prosecutors, steroids have been a prominent topic of debate since athletes started getting caught using them. This can be seen in controversies such as the Ryan Braun case of the Milwaukee Brewers, who, in 2013, tested positive for Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the form of a cream and a lozenge. He was suspended for 50 games after he admitted to using the PEDs. While his ban was eventually overturned due to urinary sample complications, Braun still admitted to the use of the drugs.
Many athletes, particularly in the MLB, have been withheld from the league’s Hall of Fame because of their involvement with banned substances. Legendary players, such as Barry Bonds, have been the central topic of debate concerning the relationship between steroids and player performances.
Braun, in our own state of Wisconsin, is just one example of many that exist in the world of substances in sports, and while precedents have been set for dealing with some of these issues, the growing use of substances is undeniable and unavoidable.
Today, while steroids and PEDs are explicitly banned, many other types of substances exist in the form of supplements, providing opportunities for athletes to improve their bodies and athletic abilities. While these steroids are more impactful and noticeable to the body than other supplements, the question becomes: Are these supplements providing athletes with unfair, enhanced athletic abilities?
What are the most common modern substances?
The most popular substances athletes use today come in the form of powder supplements. Protein powder, whether it be of whey, egg, casein, soy or other origin, is extremely common in everyday context among bodybuilders and those looking to optimize their body’s ability to gain muscle mass during workouts, especially when weightlifting. But, any athlete can use it and reap the benefits in their athletic abilities.
Another common powder that athletes use is creatine. This powder is more powerful than a normal protein powder, and it requires more concentration on keeping the body hydrated. Plus, early research indicated that using creatine consistently demonstrates correlations with long term heart problems. But, in the short term, it is also more effective in building muscle and gaining mass compared to a baseline protein powder, making it an attractive option for many athletes.
Of course, there are steroids and other PEDs that cannot be left out of this conversation — including, but not limited to, steroids used by professional athletes. While they are rare and certainly not used as publicly and recreationally as other supplements, they are still present in athletics today.
How prevalent are the legal supplements in athletics today?
Outside of steroids and PEDs, enhancing supplements are extremely common. Among athletically active students in high school and college, protein powder is used consistently. Many use it before weightlifting workouts to get the most out of their lifting.
Creatine is also common among everyday students, but not as widely used as protein powder. However, many are more cautious about implementing this supplement in their everyday lives, deliberatively considering the effects more. This is because it is extremely tolling on the body, as it requires significantly higher intakes of protein and fluids. It is both a dehydrator and shifts protein to muscles, drawing from the body’s normal energy protein supply.
In professional athletics, it is hard to say how common these supplements are used. Professional athletes’ nutrition plans are sophisticated and ever changing based on the needs of the body, but it is possible supplements may be involved. College athletes may not have the monetary resources to stick to such specific nutrition plans, so it would not be surprising if many did use some form of supplements.
According to research conducted by Dr. Michele LaBotz of Maine Health Sports Medicine, in a sample size of 806 NCAA athletes, 48% of men and 4% of women reported using creatine either in high school — to develop themselves into college athletes — or while in the NCAA system. The common use of creatine is expected, as the supplement is not banned in the NCAA.
Supplements and the University of Wisconsin
As discovered through research, supplements are common among NCAA athletes. While there is no specific data to reference for this statement regarding the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s athletic programs, it is safe to assume the trends of the research align with athletes at UW.
However, it is very important to note that while athletes are allowed and encouraged to use supplements, there are very strict regulations put in place by UW. There are no specific restrictions on the consumption levels of these supplements — at least in place by governing athletic bodies. But, there absolutely are limits on how much an athlete should consume in given time frames. Restrictions also arise when dealing with the purchasing and exchanging of these supplements.
Per the NCAA, university affiliated athletic institutions are not allowed to provide any of these supplements directly to their athletes or allow the athletes to purchase them through money or nutrition plans provided by the university. This can be seen in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Performance Nutrition Policy.
Wisconsin’s policy states, “Voucher funds can only be used for the purchase of food and non-alcoholic beverages. It is not intended to be used for the purchase of any other products. The purchase of alcohol, tobacco, supplements, and energy drinks (except Bubblr) is strictly prohibited.”
This policy aligns with the NCAA’s policies, and while it restricts Badger athletes from purchasing supplements directly through the athletic programs, it certainly does not discourage or restrict them from purchasing supplements individually and using them to enhance their athletic abilities.
Where are we headed?
There are clearly pros and cons to the use of supplements in modern day athletics. Given that many of these supplements are not explicitly banned, there remains an implied incentive for athletes to utilize these substances to get ahead of the competition. Sometimes, this can lead to dangerous abuse, seen in the anecdotes from the Norse Star, a student-led publication out of Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Wisconsin.
In an article from February, writer Gabe Rousseau pleads to his fellow students and teammates to stay away from supplements they are uneducated about. He cited personal experiences with his athletics, where he would see players using copious amounts of protein powder and proceed to sit out with cramps and fatigue throughout the season.
This short anecdote from a high school student in Wisconsin provides just one example of the negative effects supplements can cause. It emphasizes the issue of undereducation of supplements people use in their daily lives.
However, there is still much debate to be had regarding how significant the effects of these supplements are towards enhancing athletic abilities. This unanswered question, along with the lack of long term research on the physical effects of supplements like creatine and protein powder, builds uncertainty for many as they consider the use of supplements in athletics.
Supplements have been deemed fair to use in college and professional athletics, even with the knowledge that they do enhance athletic ability. But, because the effects of the supplements are undoubtedly different in each individual, it is difficult to determine if recreational use is really “fair.”
The spectrum of physical effects ranges across athletes for various reasons, but there is not enough consideration going into the range of different effects when deeming these supplements fair to use. While supplements like protein powder and creatine are too widespread to ban across multiple levels of athletics, the inequality of the spectrum of supplement effects should certainly be more prominent in consideration of approved supplement usage.
Even if the NCAA, MLB or other athletic institutions were to put a ban on supplement use, the results would be minimal and it would likely be argued as unfair. The NCAA is infamous for their less-than policy enforcement reputation — especially with issues like NIL deals — and attempting to ban such a common component of many athletes’ lives may be fruitless. Additionally, athletic institutions already have burdensome regulations on other drugs and testing systems, like the still-developing marijuana drug tests of the NFL and the “randomized” PED tests that are dished out to players who have a strong showing in one game.
While an outright ban of commonly used supplements would be impractical, the overall effects of supplement use in high school and college athletes is largely unknown. They could prove dangerous when abused, whether intentionally or not. We also do not know the true extent to which supplements impact athletic performance, and it’s very possible that they could be unfair, as the effects of supplements vary from athlete to athlete.