Mitch Ross handled Ray Lewis' public berating the way the Ravens linebacker has said he handles difficult times.
"That stuff with Ray?" Ross said Wednesday. "I've put that in God's hands."
Ross co-owns SWATS, the company that, according to Sports Illustrated, provided Lewis with deer antler spray and other supplements and apparel to aid in his recovery from a torn triceps.
Lewis aggressively denied using the SWATS products again Wednesday from New Orleans, where the Ravens are preparing to play the 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday and painted Ross as an opportunist with "no credibility." He said Ross' effort to connect Lewis to SWATS constituted "the devil's work."
Reached late Wednesday at the Fultondale, Ala., facility that serves as a gym and home base for SWATS, which stands for Sports with Alternatives to Steroids, Ross reiterated his disappointment in Lewis' failure to acknowledge his use of the products. And while Ross vigorously backed what he sells, he was reluctant to speak further of his relationship with Lewis.
Also Wednesday, an expert on performance-enhancing drugs became the third source to tell The Baltimore Sun that deer antler spray could not carry the banned hormone some sellers say makes it effective.
"There's no way to deliver insulin-like growth factor one in a spray," said Charles Yesalis, who built a reputation as one of the foremost voices on PEDs during a 20-year career as a health and sport science professor at Penn State. "That's just nonsense that the people marketing it say so doofuses buy and use it."
An NFL spokesman did not answer an email message asking whether the league believes deer antler spray transmits IGF-1 to the human body but did acknowledge that there is no test in place to monitor players for elevated levels of the hormone. This means Lewis is embroiled in a controversy over a substance that does not appear to be an impermissible drug and that the NFL cannot test him for anyway.
Ross, 45, a former male stripper, has admitted having used and sold steroids but says finding religion helped him discover the science that backs the natural products he has pushed since the mid-2000s. He eventually connected with elite athletes and coaches, including then-Ravens assistant Hue Jackson.
"Do you think I gain the confidence of a smart guy like Hue Jackson without doing my homework and having products that work?" Ross asked. (Jackson, now an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals, apologized Wednesday night for introducing Lewis to Ross.)
Ross says Jackson invited him to the Ravens facility in early 2008 and allowed him to distribute his products there. Ross says that led to a relationship with Lewis, whom he says he has helped after many of the star linebacker's recent injuries.
Lewis has not denied speaking with Ross hours after tearing his triceps in an Oct. 14 game against the Dallas Cowboys. Ross provided a tape of that conversation to Sports Illustrated.
Recording a phone conversation without the consent of all parties involved is illegal in Maryland, but it is not clear where Ross and Lewis were when the call took place.
Asked to confirm that Lewis spoke to him after sustaining a potentially career-threatening injury, Ross hesitated. Upon being reached, he insisted on reading aloud The Baltimore Sun's previous article about him so he could see whether he was quoted accurately.
"I'm learning there's a lot of people who want to twist my words," he said.
Back on the topic of Lewis, he spoke carefully.
"If I don't have credibility, then do you really ..." he said, trailing off. "I'm not going to call the man a liar during the week of the Super Bowl."
Yesalis finds the focus on what he considers a gimmick product such as deer antler spray comical, considering that the NFL has yet to implement a blood test for human growth hormone or related performance-enhancing drugs. Use of those products is rampant, he said, as evidenced by the physical size of today's athletes.
"I have doubts every time I watch an NFL game or Division I college football game," he said during a phone interview from his home in Lynchburg, Va. "Be realistic. God didn't change the recipe. Look at the last 20, 30 years. You look at the size of the athletes and the percent of body fat they have. I would love to hear a nutritionist explain how better eating or gains in strength training produced that."
Yesalis, who earned his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health in 1975 and has testified before Congress three times on PEDs and worked as consultant for the NFL and NCAA, among others, also doubts the effectiveness of tests for growth hormone.
"They tested thousands of athletes at the Olympics and only found a couple cases?" he said. "Does a reasonable person believe only one or two people at the Olympics used growth hormone? I'd call anyone who thinks that grossly naive."
Humans have long sought advantages — legal and illegal — in all facets of life, Yesalis said, and elite athletes would by nature search as hard as anyone.
Robert W.H. Price, a sports psychologist based in Montgomery County, said many athletes he works with can perform at their highest level only when they feel they have exhausted every option for gaining an advantage.
"It really is the classic placebo effect," he said. "They think they've figured out a way to be better, and so they play better. Then they develop faith in what they think made them better, regardless of what science says."
Price is working with players preparing for the NFL scouting combine and sees firsthand how determined they are to find help others competing for jobs in the league might not have.
"That becomes the competition," he said. "Part of it is that they have to prove to themselves that they've done all they can, even if it involves something off the wall."
While Lewis and others have said Ross preys on those striving and naive athletes, Ross insists that his products work. He calls himself the "world's expert" on deer antler extract and believes the spray he sells contains IGF-1 and carries its muscle-restoring powers. He says an NFL establishment led by team doctors and trainers has conspired to discredit him because of the danger his methods pose to their livelihoods.
"When you ask God to use you," he said, "you don't get to recommend how he does it."