Football's newest performance enhancing drugs: Adderall... and Viagra?
Chicago Bears star receiver Brandon Marshall tickled the sports world by claiming some players use Viagra to "get an edge." Would that really work?
Adderall and Viagra: "Some guys, they'll do whatever they can to get an edge," says the NFL's Brandon Marshall.
Adderall and Viagra: "Some guys, they'll do whatever they can to get an edge," says the NFL's Brandon Marshall. CC BY: hipsxxhearts, Fernando Camino/Cover/Getty Images

Brandon Marshall wants to be clear: He doesn't need Adderall, and he definitely doesn't need Viagra. Sadly, the star Chicago Bears wide receiver said in a Wednesday press availability, the same can't be said for other NFL players.

"I know guys, it is such a competitive league, guys try anything just to get that edge," Marshall said. "I'm fortunate enough to be blessed with size and some smarts to give me my edge. But some guys, they'll do whatever they can to get an edge."

Marshall had originally been asked about Adderall. But he wandered away from that topic: "I've heard of some crazy stories. I've heard guys using like Viagra, seriously. Because the blood is supposedly thin, some crazy stuff. So you know, it's kind of scary with some of these chemicals that are in some of these things, so you have to be careful."

Other NFL players laughed in response to Marshall's comment, brushing it off as a wild theory. But it's not all that far-fetched. It wasn't all that long ago that analysts and athletes talked about Viagra as though it could be the next big performance-enhancing drug. Indeed, just a few years ago, athletes in a variety of sports reportedly began to experiment with the sexual stimulant during competitions. In the interest of getting out in front of a discouraging new trend, the World Anti-Doping Agency started testing Viagra to see if the drug could give athletes an unfair advantage. As of 2012, they've found it to be mostly harmless.

How would Viagra function as an athletic performance enhancer? Viagra enters the bloodstream and suppresses the enzymes that control blood flow. (Any imbalance in the enzyme, whether too little or too much, causes erectile dysfunction.) The medication also causes blood vessels to expand, which lowers blood pressure and helps counteract both pulmonary arterial hypertension and erectile dysfunction. The theory goes that if the pill caused all your blood vessels to expand, allowing blood to carry more oxygen to your muscles, athletes might experience bursts of increased strength and speed. And Viagra does help your body — specifically your lungs and your penis — accept and process oxygen more efficiently. But it was not designed to help endurance athletes' muscles recover faster.

While the World Anti-Doping Agency has found Viagra to mostly be lacking in its ability to boost athletic prowess, there is one exception: High altitude. When the air is thinner, it becomes harder to breathe. The medication's expansion of blood vessels packs more punch in this environment, and because it works particularly well in your lungs, Viagra works to a high-altitude athlete's advantage, combatting the stress of thinner air.

And what about this Adderall business? Since December 2011, more than 10 NFL players have been suspended after testing positive for amphetamines, the Associated Press reports. Read "amphetamines" and you probably think meth labs, rotten teeth, and Breaking Bad. But you should be thinking about Adderall, the popular ADHD medication.

Adderall doesn't promote muscle growth. It helps you focus. Indeed, many professional athletes, most notably baseball players, reportedly use Adderall to stay mentally sharp. In many ways, it makes sense for a baseball player to want to use amphetamines. The games drag, and sometimes it's hard to keep your mind from wandering. But football is a game of constant action. If you love the sport and still can't focus when you have 300-pound guys barreling toward you, you probably should think about a career change. Consequently, the NFL has strict rules prohibiting the use of drugs like Adderall. Any player who wants to take the drug needs not only a prescription, but also a psychiatrist's note exempting him from the NFL rule. 

Now, there is a theory that Adderall is simply a Red Herring. When players score positive on a drug test, the theory goes, they claim they were simply using Adderall to help them focus rather than steroids to pump up their body. The players' collective bargaining agreement includes a clause that the league cannot publicly reveal the substance for which a player tested positive. So if a player comes out and says he was taking Adderall, the NFL cannot contradict him, even if the league knows he's lying.

But let's be honest: In football, neither Adderall nor Viagra seem to give a player an unfair advantage. Adderall doesn't help you become a more efficient football player, and Viagra doesn't do for muscles what players think it does — unless they're playing at a high altitude. So unless the league is planning a Denver-specific crackdown, it's probably time for us to ignore the hype about Viagra on the gridiron.



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