It's hardly newsworthy that the Redskins are officially outfitted by Adidas, but the billboard at FedEx Field for Washington Laser Eye Center, the Redskins' official laser eye center, is a sign of the times. The growing number of athletes singing the praises of LASIK, the 15- to 30-minute laser surgery that can correct many common vision problems, raises the question, Should pro athletes and teams be endorsing a surgical procedure?
The ethics of such endorsements are dubious. Some physicians are paying topflight athletes like Tiger Woods and Bernie Williams hefty fees to let the doctors perform the surgery on them or use their names in marketing. "People should put that [information] up front," says Atlanta surgeon Alan Kozarsky, whose patients, including Greg Maddux and Bob Tway, have not been compensated. "Paid athlete endorsements can oversell the product. People go into surgery expecting miracles the next day. But athletes are younger than the typical LASIK candidate and heal faster. They start with better ingredients."
Often with better physicians, too. "Pros are not going to a doctor who has just completed one of those LASIK weekend courses," says Kozarsky. Indeed, although TLC Laser Eye Centers, which Woods endorses, has more than 11,500 affiliated doctors, Woods's physician, Mark Whitten, performs up to 1,000 procedures a month and has a monthlong waiting list.
There's also the question of efficacy. While an estimated 95% of LASIK patients have no postoperative complications, not everyone in sports is convinced that the procedure, which was approved by the FDA only two years ago, is risk-free. The Dodgers' Michael Mellman is one team doctor who is unconvinced that the surgery can help hitters. Mark McGwire, whose 20/600 vision is possibly the worst in baseball, has no plans to get zapped. "He wears his contacts comfortably and hits a ton of home runs," says Kozarsky. "He'd be crazy to mess with that."