Al Jazeera, HGH and the NFL: Where Things Stand
The NFL says its investigation is “ongoing and comprehensive,” but with no tangible evidence, no power to compel cooperation and an accuser who’s recanted every allegation, it’s difficult to see anything coming of a probe unless higher authorities get involved
A month after Al Jazeera aired its sports doping documentary “The Dark Side,” its blizzard of allegations have yet to be cleared up. Among those named in the documentary, in which former British sprinter Liam Collins went undercover in an attempt to expose performance enhancing drug use by athletes, were Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Packers defensive stalwarts Clay Matthews, Mike Neal and Julius Peppers, former tight end Dustin Keller and, most notably, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. All have vehemently denied the allegations from the report. MLB players Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman, also named in the program, have subsequently sued Al Jazeera for libel.
The source for the most explosive allegations is Charlie Sly, a 31-year-old supplement salesman with pharmaceutical training whose conversations with Collins, some 27 hours’ worth according to Al Jazeera, were recording without Sly’s knowledge. During his discussions with Collins—the contents of which he later completely disavowed—Sly spoke at length about supplying PEDs to various NFL players, and about meeting and working with Peyton Manning at the Guyer Institute, an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis, while Manning was recovering from neck surgery in 2011. Sly also claimed the Guyer Institute sent growth hormone to Manning’s wife, Ashley. Manning denied the allegations to Peter King of The MMQB and Chris Mortensen of ESPN, and a Manning spokesman told Al Jazeera the allegations were false, that Ashley’s medical history was a private matter and that “any medication shipped to her was prescribed by her doctor and taken solely by her.” Defending the Al Jazeera story afterward, reporter Deborah Davies said a second “very reliable” source confirmed to Al Jazeera that HGH shipments were sent to the Mannings’ home. On Wednesday of this week, Manning spokesman Ari Fleischer told The MMQB, “I believe the piece is irresponsible journalism that sought to smear Peyton Manning, as well as invade the privacy of Ashley Manning.”
The allegation that perhaps the NFL’s biggest and most respected star was involved with HGH, a substance that is banned by the NFL (but which the league didn’t test for before 2014), naturally set off a firestorm. That allegation for now hinges entirely on Sly, and at the end of the Al Jazeera documentary he himself backtracks, claiming any secretly recorded statements about athletes were “false and incorrect.” In addition, shortly before the show aired on Dec. 26, Sly filmed a YouTube clip in which he recanted everything he said in “The Dark Side.”
“Charlie regrets that he created this storm,” Sly’s Indiana-based lawyer, Travis Cohron, told The MMQB earlier this month. “The documentary portrays him as a peddler of steroids, where it couldn’t be further [from] the truth. Also, he has never had any contact with any of the athletes as suggested. Charlie Sly has never met Peyton Manning. He has never worked with him. He has never worked with Ashley Manning. Maybe he has been in the same building as her, but he has no knowledge of what treatments she may or may not have had.”
Sly’s disavowal notwithstanding, the NFL says it has undertaken an “ongoing and comprehensive” investigation into the Al Jazeera story. The nature and extent of that probe remains unclear, however, and the NFL’s silence on the details has prompted criticism in light of the resources the league has expended on Deflategate, a controversy involving the only NFL star on a par with Manning.
Yet the cases are inherently different. The NFL faces significant hurdles in an investigation of Manning and the other players named by Al Jazeera. At the moment there appears to be no tangible evidence—documentation, legal proceedings, failed tests, etc.—of a policy violation. Moreover, the NFL has no power to compel key figures from the report such as Al Jazeera reporters, Guyer Institute workers or Sly to cooperate, and those figures may have little motivation to speak to the NFL. In Deflategate, important figures included Patriots employees who were contractually obligated to participate in the investigation.
The situation is similar to the one MLB faced in its handling of Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis scandal in 2013. MLB overcame the evidence hurdle in that case by suing Biogenesis for interfering with player contracts, a path that for now the NFL appears unlikely to pursue.
The league also lacks access to Sly’s personal records or those of the Guyer Institute, and it likely won’t get such access unless other authorities intervene. For example, when former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended by NFL for using HGH in 2007, it was after he was caught during a nationwide crackdown on internet drug sales. In that probe, the Albany County (N.Y) District Attorney’s office discovered Harrison’s name on an illegal prescription from a Florida clinic for HGH, which Harrison had purchased online. Whatever the NFL’s investigation involves, the likeliest scenario for uncovering evidence against players named by Al Jazeera is if the Drug Enforcement Agency, Food and Drug Administration or other authority were to investigate the Guyer Institute or Charlie Sly. Spokesmen for the FDA and DEA would not comment on whether such investigations were being pursued.
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Absent that evidence, and given that Sly has recanted, the question is, how credible are the allegations he made before he was aware that he was being recorded? The program thrust Collins into the underbelly of sports doping as mole, portraying him as an aging British hurdler seeking one last shot at glory. According to Sly’s lawyer, Collins approached Sly with business opportunities abroad, and Sly was under the assumption that Collins could help grow his supplement business, rather than looking to buy steroids. Could Sly simply have been bragging, falsely, about knowing those players, to impress a potential client or investor? And yet for six days, including a series of road trips to Houston and Dallas, Sly spoke with apparent authority of specific athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.
It’s even disputed when exactly Sly, who was a licensed pharmacy intern in Indiana from 2010 to 2013, worked at the Guyer Institute. In the program, Al Jazeera said he was an intern there in 2011, the year Manning sat out the NFL season while recovering from neck surgery. After the show aired, the Guyer Institute said that Sly had been an unpaid intern for three months in 2013, long after Manning had moved on from the Colts to Denver. In response, Al Jazeera released the video of a fact-checking phone call by reporter Deborah Davies to the clinic, in which a Guyer employee gave Sly’s starting date as October 17, 2011, and said he worked at Guyer for “about three months.” Asked by The MMQB to clarify, Cohron reasserted that Sly did not work at the clinic in 2011 and that it was “about two years after that.” Guyer spokesman Stephen Cooke of the Bose Public Affairs group told The MMQB, “The 2011 date … reported by Al Jazeera was actually the date in which Sly had originally applied for an internship.”
It’s not disputed that Manning was a patient of the Guyer Institute. He told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that his treatment at Guyer was “holistic,” involving “nutrient therapy and oxygen therapy” and the like. Fleischer reiterated that Manning’s treatment at the Institute was on the advice of his physician and with knowledge from Colts doctors and trainers. (It would not be the only time Manning pursued alternative medicine. In 2011 he reportedly traveled to Europe for stem-cell therapy in attempt to speed recovery from his neck injury. Stem-cell treatment is regulated differently in Europe than in the U.S.)
In response to the Al Jazeera program, Manning’s agent, Tom Condon, assembled a legal team and retained crisis management czar Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. Manning’s crew sent a team of investigators to Indianapolis. The Guyer Institue allowed the investigators to sort through the Mannings’ records; it is unclear what they found.
As the Al Jazeera report notes, HGH can be prescribed legally for only very limited medical conditions: short bowel syndrome, often the result of surgery to treat cancer or other intestinal diseases; rare pituitary tumors; and muscle-wasting disease associated with HIV/AIDS. However, off-label use of HGH, often prescribed through anti-aging clinics, has come into vogue in recent years. An in-depth 2012 Associated Press investigation found that more than half of all HGH orders in the U.S. were likely off-label. A 2008 Sports Illustrated story detailed the popularity of HGH among non-athletes, as an anti-aging treatment, energy booster and muscle-builder. Celebrities who have been associated with HGH range from Sylvester Stallone (who was arrested in 2007 for attempting to bring HGH into Australia; he pleaded guilty and paid a $13,000 fine) to Mary J. Blige (who was named in the same probe in which Rodney Harrison was caught but who denied involvement with HGH). A 2013 Vanity Fair article called HGH Hollywood’s “It” drug, deeming it “the love child of Viagra and Botox.”
HGH’s off-label use as potential fertility treatment is a fairly recent trend, according to Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. “I believe there are clinical trials underway to determine whether it has any beneficial effect on fertility,” Olshansky said. “I don’t know if those trials are complete, but it is my personal belief that because HGH is a biologically active compound, it should not be used by anyone for any purpose other than those for which it has been tested for safety and efficacy.”
Dr. Thomas Perls, associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and a leading critic of the “anti-aging industry,” told The MMQB, “It is illegal to distribute HGH for infertility, and I have never seen research or clinical evidence supporting the use of HGH for infertility.”
The Guyer Institute, which specializes in anti-aging, has been linked to HGH before. A 2007 federal indictment against a Colorado company, College Pharmacy, alleged that Dr. Dale Guyer received HGH from China that was not approved by the FDA. In that case, the doctor from College Pharmacy, Thomas Bader, was found guilty of 31 counts of steroid trafficking and other drug-related charges (which were dropped on an appeal). No charges were brought against Dale Guyer.
Human growth hormone does not fall under the Controlled Substances Act, but since 1990 the FDA says distribution of HGH or possession with the intent to distribute “for any use … other than the treatment of a disease or other recognized medical condition, where such use has been authorized by the Secretary of Health and Human Services … and pursuant to the order of a physician” is a felony that carries a sentence of up to five years. However, Olshansky notes, “These anti-aging clinics aren’t slipping through the cracks, they’re flooding the sidewalks. It has become such a huge industry that the government just hasn’t been able to regulate it.”
A spokeswoman from the Marion County Prosecutors Office in Indiana said there are no criminal charges pending against the Guyer Institute or any individuals known to be connected with the clinic. Neither the FDA nor the DEA would comment on whether the Guyer Insitute is under investigation.
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Charlie Sly declined to be interviewed for this article. Speaking on his behalf, his lawyer, Cohron, confirmed that the NFL had contacted Sly as part of its investigation but said that his client likely will not cooperate. Cohron said Sly was “exploring” litigation against Al Jazeera, “but to be honest, right now we’re on the defensive. Charlie has been threatened by lawsuits by a number of parties.”
Through several interviews The MMQB conducted with associates of Sly, a better portrait of him emerges. As a kid in Indiana he was friends with Dustin Keller, and the two were teammates on the Jefferson High basketball team in Lafayette. While Keller developed into a sturdy offensive threat for the Purdue football team, Sly studied pharmacy, with an emphasis on supplements, bouncing among colleges: a semester at Purdue (Spring 2003), nine months at Indiana Institute of Technology, one semester at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, a stint at Roseman University of Health and Sciences in Henderson, Nev., from 2009 to ’13. In ’11, Keller, then a fourth-year pro with the Jets, told Men’s Journal that Sly was involved in his offseason training regimen. “I get together with Jason Riley and Charlie Sly of Elementz Nutrition to start mapping out nutrition, supplementation, training sessions and recovery sessions,” Keller told the magazine. After Keller played his final snap for the Jets in 2013, he moved to Texas to pursue business ventures. Sly also moved there.
At the time of Al Jazeera’s six-month investigation this summer, Sly lived in a luxury apartment in Austin’s chic Second Street District, in the same building that Keller and his wife, Erin, use as a mailing address. Curiously, a public records search for Keller on Nexis turns up several results in which the street address is under Keller’s name but the e-mail address given is Sly’s. (Multiple attempts to reach Keller for this story were unsuccessful.) Sly’s attorney confirmed that Sly and Keller were still “good friends” but did not respond to questions about their Austin housing arrangement. Sly is currently living with his parents in Indiana.
As first reported by The New York Times, several of the professional athletes Sly named—including Howard, Neal, Keller and Zimmerman, but not Manning—are clients of Florida-based trainer Jason Riley. The Times stated that Sly and Riley are business partners and co-founded Elementz Nutrition, a vitamin and supplement company. However, Riley’s business attorney, Anthony Fauntazzi, whom Riley authorized to speak on his behalf, told The MMQB that Riley and Sly are not in business together and that, contrary to the Times report, Elementz Nutrition is still operating.
Fauntazzi says that Riley first met Sly at “a function for athletes” in 2011, three years after Elementz Nutrition was founded. “Jason was really impressed by Charlie’s knowledge of nutrition and supplements,” Fauntazzi says, “and their relationship began there. But it was never exactly a business relationship. Charlie Sly never received one paycheck from Jason. I would say it was more of an advisory role. Jason would often contact Charlie and ask about certain supplements or certain nutritional programs for different clients. They had talked about doing business together at some point, but Charlie was always living in another part of the country, and Jason often had long stretches without hearing from Charlie.” Fauntazzi says Riley has not heard from Sly since July, 2015.
“Jason doesn’t know why Charlie said the things he said,” Fauntazzi added. “He was totally shocked upon watching that documentary. My guess as to why he named those specific athletes? I think he just rattled off names of people he knew worked with Jason.”
Like Dustin Keller, Mike Neal of the Packers is from Indiana and attended Purdue; the two overlapped there for two seasons. In the Al Jazeera film, Sly said he spent about six weeks in Green Bay last season, and claimed that his “good friend” Neal, who served a four-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs in 2012, introduced him to about half the Packers team. When approached by The MMQB about the Al Jazeera documentary after Green Bay’s wild-card win against Washington earlier this month, Neal said, “That stuff has already been dealt with. That’s weeks behind. I don’t even know who Al Jazeera is. That’s not something in my world. My world is playing football.”
Cohron downplayed the notion that Sly’s connection to Riley was evidence that Sly had worked directly with athletes. “Charlie has worked with a number of different trainers in the health field,” Cohron said. “Yes, he may know some of these athletes, but their relationship did not involve treatment or care as asserted. My view and my opinion is that maybe Charlie drew those names [that is, brought up the names in the secretly recorded conversations] because he knew they worked with that trainer in Florida, not necessarily because he worked with them.”
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On Dec. 4, according to an Al Jazeera spokesman, the Washington, D.C.-based unit that produced “The Dark Side” sent out a first wave of letters to the athletes mentioned in the film to give them a chance to respond. The letters outlined the allegations against each athlete but didn’t name Sly as the source. The broadcast aired on Dec. 26, and Howard and Zimmerman filed their lawsuits against Al Jazeera on Jan. 6.
Because they are public figures, Howard and Zimmerman bear the burden of proof under U.S. libel law in showing not only that Al Jazeera’s statements about them are false, but that the network acted with actual malice or reckless disregard of the truth in airing those allegations. Their cases could dictate how NFL players named in the Al Jazeera report will respond. Fleischer told The MMQB that Peyton Manning will consider his legal options after the Super Bowl. According to Al Jazeera, none of the other players have yet sued. Under D.C.’s statute of limitations they have one year to file a lawsuit, though suits could be brought in other jurisdictions.
As with Howard and Zimmerman, the NFL players may have a hard time winning in U.S. court because of the law’s hefty burden of proof on public figures. However, a case might be made for Ashley Manning, who is arguably a private figure; under libel law a private figure must show only negligence, rather than malice or reckless disregard for the truth. (Ashley Manning’s public/private status is murky for several reasons, one of which is that she is a minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies.) Fleischer said it was possible Ashley Manning would litigate.
Earlier this month, amid internal turmoil and disappointing ratings, Al Jazeera America announced that it will shutter operations in April. The investigative unit that produced “The Dark Side” was always part the parent company, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, and will survive.
Sly, meanwhile, has gone undercover himself. According to his lawyer, Al Jazeera has not been in contact with him since the piece aired on Dec. 26, and he has not spoken publicly since his YouTube video. That leaves Cohron to represent the man at the center of perhaps the biggest, and strangest, doping allegation the NFL has seen. “The last thing I’ll say,” says Cohron, “is that Charlie feels terrible about all of this. Never did little Charlie Sly ever imagine something he said in the back of a car would force Peyton Manning, of all people, to respond.”