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Low sperm counts, fertility drugs, and the NFL

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports is well known by the general public. The high profiled cases of Jose Canseco, Shawne Merriman, Roger Clemens, Alexander Rodriguez, and many, many others has contributed to the attention to this issue. Performance enhancing drug use has prompted league commissioners to beef up policies on drugs in their respective leagues in the form of banned substance policies and punishment for violating those policies.

The lists of banned substances are meant to regulate one of the few controllable features of sports—advantages due to drugs. To do this, the lists contain typical performance enhancing drugs such as human growth hormones and anabolic steroids, however, the lists also include drugs for ailments such as asthma and hypertension. Professional athletes are barred from using these kinds of drugs that individuals who are not professional athletes commonly use because of their enhancing effects on athletic performance. This cross section of performance enhancing drugs and drugs for legitimate ailments is where NFL player, Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts found himself. Mathis, one of the top defenders in the NFL recently received a 4 game suspension for testing positive for the drug Clomid.

Clomid is a fertility drug that Mathis says he took to help him conceive his fourth child with his wife, who is now pregnant. The problem posed for Mathis as a professional football player is that Clomid is listed on the NFL’s banned substance policy because of its potential performance enhancing characteristics. Clomid can help increase sperm count, thus increasing chances of pregnancy, but it can also increase testosterone, which can enhance athletic performance (Clomid is only approved by the FDA for use by women and is not approved by the FDA for use by men, although some fertility specialists have prescribed the drug for men). Mathis has denied taking the drug for the latter benefits and seems to have the support of his coach and teammates who believe in his good intentions. Nonetheless, Mathis is taking responsibility for his actions, namely taking a drug without contacting the appropriate people to determine if taking Clomid could pose problems for his ability to compete in the NFL; however, he did attempt (albeit unsuccessfully) to appeal his suspension.

Whether we believe Mathis took Clomid for strictly fertility purposes is irrelevant. It is more important to consider if there could be an instance when an athlete wants to take a drug that is listed in their league’s banned substance policy for therapeutic purposes but must choose between taking a banned drug and risk punishment and obeying his profession’s policies, thus barring him from the drugs’ medicinal benefits. After reading the comments on various articles written about Mathis’ suspension, this seemed to be a big concern among those that commented.

Many of the article commentators were very sympathetic to Mathis’ situation. Many stated their outrage that the NFL’s policies would not allow Mathis to expand his family. On the other hand, some commentators were upset with Mathis (undoubtedly many Colts fans) and believed that he should have obeyed his league’s policies, refrained from taking Clomid, and expanded his family once he was no longer an NFL player.

Commentators on both sides seem to ignore an option that the NFL makes available to its players who find themselves in situations like Mathis’ situation—Therapeutic Usage Exemptions (TUE). A player can be granted a TUE if he needs to take substances for therapeutic purposes that are banned by his league. This means that Mathis could have taken the necessary steps to receive a TUE, which would have allowed him to take Clomid and continue to play in the NFL without suspension.  Every player that applies for a TUE is not guaranteed to be granted a TUE, however, instituting this potential exemption from the banned substance policy is a legitimate measure to allow athletes to take the drugs that they need and still play in the league.

It is difficult to believe that Mathis did not know that a TUE was available to him if he legitimately only wanted to take Clomid for fertility purposes and not for athletic enhancement. But I suppose scrutinizing his decision is besides the point. The takeaway lesson from Mathis’ inability to conceive a child with his wife while being a player in the NFL is to be aware of the options that professions make available to its players to remain in good standing with the league and receive the therapeutic benefits of drugs.

This entry was posted in Featured Posts, Sports Ethics. Posted by Keisha Ray. Bookmark the permalink.

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