Doctor Charged With Illegally Treating U.S. Athletes

Robert Siegel talks with sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about the latest doping scandals in the world of sports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Yesterday, we reported on allegations by Floyd Landis about widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among professional cyclists. Well, that wasn't the only doping story this week. A Canadian doctor was charged in U.S. federal court with illegally treating American athletes with banned or unapproved drugs, including HGH, human growth hormone.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now to discuss the latest development in a never-ending story of drugs and sports. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And the doctor is Anthony Galea, and according to reports, he has treated numerous well-known athletes in a variety of sports. No athletes are named in the criminal complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors in Buffalo, but what are the allegations?

FATSIS: Well, Galea is charged with illegally distributing human growth hormone and with illegally importing another drug, Actovegin, which is an extract of calf's blood that's been used medically to stimulate the use of oxygen and sugar by the body, which could help athletes with stamina, performance, healing. Actovegin is not approved for sale in the United States.

And this case began last fall, when Galea's assistant was stopped at the U.S.-Canada border with HGH, other drugs, syringes, a centrifuge and other equipment. Now it's being reported that she was en route to Washington, where Galea was to treat Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss.

SIEGEL: Santana Moss, a pretty big name, but this is a doctor who also had treated Tiger Woods, baseball's Alex Rodriguez - pretty big names.

FATSIS: Yeah, but let's be careful. Some of his treatments were not necessarily with illegal drugs or illegal in and of themselves. Now, it's been reported that after knee surgery last year, Woods received a treatment known as platelet-rich plasma therapy, which is designed to speed healing.

Galea has said that he gave Rodriguez anti-inflammatories after hip surgery last year. Court documents, however, obtained by ESPN show that Galea treated 23 athletes in eight U.S. cities in less than two months last summer with treatments including HGH injections, vitamin drips and that plasma therapy, too.

SIEGEL: Galea is in trouble with the law here. Are the athletes at risk of being prosecuted?

FATSIS: Apparently not, but the risk for any of them who plays a team sport is suspension. HGH is banned by the National Football League and by Major League Baseball, among other sports. The criminal complaint did cite three NFL players, two current ones, who said they didn't knowingly take HGH, which is a common excuse issued by athletes, and the former player who admitted getting HGH kits from Galea.

SIEGEL: Let's talk a little bit about HGH. We're not talking here about steroids or other drugs that we associate with athletes bulking up or getting stronger or faster. HGH does something different.

FATSIS: Right, but let's make it clear. HGH can be illegal in some circumstances, and it is banned by these leagues. So athletes are breaking the rules if they use it. So they shouldn't use it. Now, while HGH does seem to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass, it's not clear whether it increases strength or improves performance. But it may have some effect on healing and recovery.

So the larger question here, which Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins raised in a thoughtful piece this week, is whether we need to begin considering the intent of certain drugs and treatments. Should it matter if an athlete takes something specifically to heal the ravages of his or her sport or to be better protected from the physical damage that high-level sports can cause?

SIEGEL: Should it matter? And can sports actually differentiate among the intent of different athletes in different sports?

FATSIS: It's close to impossible, but, you know, because one athlete's honest desire to heal faster could be another athlete's desire to gain a competitive edge.

Fans, though, I think don't appreciate just how severely athletes damage their bodies. We want to see them run faster and jump higher and hit harder, but we don't really consider the consequences of all that running and jumping and hitting, or the lengths to which athletes who are, by the way, under enormous pressure to perform for themselves, for teams, for contracts, for jobs, the lengths that they're going to go to achieve that.

And the conversation I think that sports needs to have now is how to improve treatment for injuries without compromising the ethics of fair competition. And if that means reconsidering the administration of certain drugs like HGH right now there's going to be others, of course, in the future - and finding ways to deliver them safely and fairly and to educate athletes so they don't go looking for Canadian doctors who aren't licensed in the United States, then sports need to do that.

SIEGEL: Okay, thanks, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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