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Modern science may scoff at holographic stickers and negatively charged water, but that matters little if the right athlete becomes a believer or, better yet, a proselytizer. The boundaries of medical science expand at too glacial a pace for many athletes desperate to enhance their performance. That desperation, in turn, represents a business opportunity for self-ordained sports-science entrepreneurs operating in the shadowy, multibillion-dollar athletic-supplement industry. Key had given some of S.W.A.T.S.'s chips to LSU players before their 9--6 victory over Alabama in November 2011; that helped him get an audience with the Tide players, who received some of the same S.W.A.T.S. products that outfielder Johnny Damon, golfer Vijay Singh and linebacker Shawne Merriman have used. S.W.A.T.S.'s most famous client, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, enters Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday after speaking with Ross in October to request items that would speed his recovery from a torn right triceps.
"Athletes want to win and compete at the highest level and so they are willing to try anything," Key says. "All the athletes in the beginning are, like, 'Look, we don't care what it is. If it works we will use it.'"
S.W.A.T.S. is merely one of the hundreds of entries in the sports-supplement business, a field that is rife with dubious product claims because it is lightly regulated in the U.S. Every company has its own spin, its own narrative and its own method for using big-time sports to create demand. Take Lake Forest, Calif.--based Power Balance, which between 2007 and '10 sold millions of silicone bracelets bearing frequency-programmed holographic stickers that were said to offer "up to a 500% increase in strength, balance and flexibility." (One of the company's founders would use the same cellphone demonstration on potential clients that Key used in New Orleans, a parlor trick that is accomplished with simple leverage.) Power Balance capitalized on the NBA star power of Shaquille O'Neal, who swore by the bracelets, and Lamar Odom, who was given a stake in the company in exchange for his endorsement. They attracted other athletes, including quarterback Drew Brees and outfielder Matt Kemp, and ultimately celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Khloe Kardashian, Odom's wife.
The ubiquity of Power Balance bracelets on sidelines around the world attracted the attention not only of scientists but also of authorities in Australia, where products purporting to offer health and performance benefits are tightly regulated. In December 2010—the same year Power Balance reported gross sales of $35 million—the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission ordered the company to admit that the claims it made about its products "were not supported by any credible scientific evidence" and that it "engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct." After the debunkers came the lawyers, and Power Balance soon faced several class action suits in the U.S. and abroad. In 2011 the Australian and American divisions of Power Balance filed for bankruptcy and the company was sold to a Chinese creditor.
Unlike Power Balance, S.W.A.T.S. doesn't compensate athletes for promoting its products. According to Ross, the company broke even last year, and both he and Key hold down side jobs to make ends meet. S.W.A.T.S. operates out of a low-slung, brown-brick building alongside the Decatur Highway in Fultondale, Ala., neighbor to the One Hundred Oaks mobile-home park and the Funtime roller-skating center. The building, once a motorcycle repair shop, is primarily a gym where Ross, the company's founder, runs his personal training business. What passes for a lab—computers, a water ionizer, beam-ray lights—is in a storage room in the back.
There, a few feet from a Pop-a-Shot game and perched on a shelf in front of a wooden crucifix, are what look like two large, silver Christmas tree ornaments. Between them sit plastic tubs filled with bottles of deer-antler spray. Ross is quick to tell visitors that his spray is no different from that sold by other supplement purveyors and that the hologram chips "are just stickers"—that is, until the spray and the chips are "programmed" with both S.W.A.T.S.'s "performance" light beam and with radio waves emitted by the Christmas ornaments, which are actually radio frequency transmitters.
The theoretical underpinning offered by Key is that radio waves can be stored in fluids (the spray) and in holograms (the chips), and that when an athlete consumes the fluid or wears the holograms, the radio waves are re-emitted and prompt his body to create specific nutrients and hormones—from vitamin B to testosterone. Key says that it's not unlike the way particular wavelengths of sunlight cause the human body to produce vitamin D. In the musty storage room, the holographic stickers and bottles of deer-antler spray are irradiated for 24 straight hours or more in what Ross and Key say is an effort to program them with performance-enhancing frequencies.
The concept springs partly from the work of Royal Raymond Rife, a 1930s American inventor who claimed that he could zap viruses with a contraption that emitted radio waves, akin to the way that a soprano who hits the right vocal frequency can shatter a wine glass. Rife's acolytes—and Key is one—claim that Rife cured 16 terminal cancer patients but that his achievement was scuttled by a conspiracy of the American Medical Association.
In truth there is not a crumb of accepted scientific backing for any of the frequency technology that Rife created; a 1994 American Cancer Society review concluded that radio-wave devices do not have "objective benefit in the treatment of cancer in human beings." And if the technology seems merely a silly sideshow, it can be dangerous, even fatal, to those who rely on it. In the decades since Rife died in 1971, versions of "Rife devices" have contributed to the deaths of cancer patients who relied on them in lieu of chemotherapy. (Key told the Alabama players that he could cure running back Trent Richardson's mother of lupus, and when a diabetic man wandered into S.W.A.T.S. headquarters during SI's visit in October, Key told him that he believed holographic stickers could help treat his blood-sugar problem.)
What about S.W.A.T.S.'s other products? The deer-antler spray does contain IGF-1, though in small quantities, and deer IGF-1 may not even work in humans. No such thing as negatively charged water exists, according to Stephen Lower, an emeritus chemistry professor at Canada's Simon Fraser University who has lectured on the structure of water. The idea that hologram stickers or deer-antler extract will encode radio waves emitted near them defies basic physics. In tests at his lab at the NYU Polytechnic Institute, radio frequency expert and electrical engineering professor Michael Knox showed SI that the hologram chips did not alter the frequencies transmitted by a cellphone at all. (As far as interfering with a cellphone signal, the antistatic bag that the chips came in was more effective than the chips themselves.) Knox also determined that the glue adhesive on the back of the chips acts as an insulator, preventing any transmission between the chips and the skin. His conclusion: "They appear to be just stickers."