Why you should care
Because performance enhancers have a long history.
The quarterback was the first to testify in Congress. Before the senate subcommittee in 1980, Daryle Lamonica explained that, as a young player in the NFL in 1967, he had jammed his thumb badly in practice. He couldn’t bend it. Nor could he hold the ball. For help, he turned to an almost totally banned drug, DMSO, or dimethyl sulfoxide. His skin burned and blistered. “It almost started to smoke,” he told lawmakers. But then, he said, the swelling went down right before his eyes. Within minutes his skin was back to normal and he took to the field the next day.
More than 100,000 Americans were using DMSO, a derivate of wood pulp, each year — for sports and nonsports-related injuries. Senator Edward Kennedy and his subcommittee recognized that they couldn’t keep ignoring DMSO, which was being used whether or not it was legal. The healing claims were nothing short of miraculous. Some rubbed DMSO onto their injuries, while others drank it or took it intravenously. The purposes were vast, ranging from alleviating arthritis to treating muscular disorders.
They ‘practically bathed’ the runner, he said. Sure enough, the runner was able to compete, which he billed ‘a minor miracle.’
Like wildfire between the 1960s and 1980s, DMSO caught on in sports locker rooms, where HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs would soon run loose. The best way to procure the smelly stuff, which was only approved for human use for a rare bladder condition, was through a veterinarian. Horse and other animal injuries netted prescriptions, and one athlete even borrowed his friend’s injured dog to get a veterinarian’s prescription for DMSO. Others got ahold of DMSO through their locker rooms or personal trainers.
By 1983, a Sports Illustrated reporter stood in the McArthur Court, the University of Oregon gymnasium. He watched as the first-class American runners medicated their injuries. The long-limbed, cardiovascularly indestructible guys rubbed in an oily substance that was invisible to the eye. The smell, though, was unmistakable and utterly disgusting: “a commingling of the vapors of turpentine, rotten eggs and old oysters,” he wrote.
Was DMSO allowed? No — only a couple of states had legalized it. Sports medicine as we know it today is relatively new, having been formalized in the latter half of the 20th century. Before then, “I think it was more the Wild West; it was mostly learning as you go, since there wasn’t formalized education,” Rob Johnson, one of the founders of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, says. So some sports doctors illegally gave out doses to players, ignoring that it caused “death breath” — a garlicky smell produced by the solvent reaching one’s lungs — and eye damage to rats in clinical trials.
Certainly, many athletes protected themselves, refusing to use the mysterious substance. Some were not sold on using medication intended for horses and dogs. According to Sports Illustrated, the Orioles’ Doug DeCinces worried about the longterm effects; Lou Pinella thought it was all a hoax — he tried it and saw no results. And some parents protested the drugging of their children: One coach used DMSO on his high school football players, and the school board quickly and unanimously dismissed him.
But when the Senate listened, there were many true believers. Lamonica told Congress it was a “miracle drug.” A track coach at Indiana University told a story of how one runner was bruised black and blue from his butt to his knee. The coach found him some DMSO and gave him an enormous dose of it. The runner suffered skin irritation and the room stank. They “practically bathed” the runner, he said. Sure enough, the runner was able to compete, which he billed “a minor miracle.” In just two days, his leg had no discoloration anymore, and the soreness had been alleviated.
‘You put it on your skin and you put it on a muscle, and I guarantee you, in about 30 minutes, you’d feel great.’
—Tony Casillas, NFL Defensive Tackle
A couple of years later, in 1982, scandal hurt DMSO’s chances of ever gaining approval. Dr. Stanley Jacob, the principal experimenter who looked into the medicinal effects of DMSO, had, it seemed, paid the FDA’s chief investigator tens of thousands of dollars. The smell of the transaction was as funky as DMSO, according to The New York Times. The conspiracy went to court, resulting in a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury, and DMSO remained in limbo — illegal but obtainable.
The drug went on to be used in locker rooms, but its national media profile started to decline. Today, the FDA has kept DMSO to minimal use for ailments like painful bladder syndrome and a few other conditions (under supervision), including shingles. Most recently, Tony Casillas, a former defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys who played in the ’90s, went on talk radio and professed that the drugs used today — deer antler spray and more — might sound ridiculous but are “nothing” compared to the past. “We used to use this stuff called DMSO.… You put it on your skin and you put it on a muscle, and I guarantee you, in about 30 minutes, you’d feel great.”