Why are athletes getting banned for using fertility drugs?

This past week, Golden Tate, former Notre Dame football star and now New York Giants receiver, was suspended four games for testing positive for a substance on the NFL’s list of banned performance enhancing drugs. However, he was not taking anabolic steroids, nor any other type of supplement usually considered under the typical definition of PED.

Golden Tate was taking a fertility drug.

In a statement last week, Tate said, “This past April, during the off-season, my wife and I decided to see a specialist for fertility planning. I started the treatment prescribed to me and just days later I discovered it contained an ingredient that is on the league’s banned substance list. I immediately discontinued use, I reported the situation to the Independent Administrator of the NFL Policy on Performance-Enhancing Substances, and I spoke with my coaches and general manager. I did all of this well before a failed test was even confirmed.”

This isn’t the first time that one of these drugs has caused an uproar in professional sports. In 2014, another football player, Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts, was accused of doping when he was taking found to be taking Clomid, a prescription drug often used to aid male infertility.

But why are these drugs that are supposed to improve a man’s fertility being banned by the NFL? It all comes down to the NFL’s biggest worry with PEDs: testosterone.

Testosterone is critical for men’s sperm count and fertility. But in supplement form, it is also taken by athletes as a way to increase muscle mass, decrease hair loss, and improve strength and endurance. Many athletes take illegal testosterone supplements in pill or injection form. Tate’s drug, however, is a common fertility drug that specifically works by blocking estrogen receptors in the body. Because the estrogen receptors are blocked, the circulating hormones in the body aren’t detected which leads hormone-producing glands to think estrogen levels are low, so the glands boost production of two of the other important reproductive hormones, LH and FSH. In response to a boost in LH, the body produces higher levels of testosterone and often sperm count. In summary, the drugs raise testosterone levels indirectly; the athlete isn’t taking any additional testosterone, but the body is being tricked into producing more on its own.

Because the medications stimulate testosterone production, they raise red flags all across the professional sports world. In cases of other drugs, it is likely that when caught, the athlete would accept their punishment and discontinue use of the drug. The problem that Golden Tate—and many other athletes in his situation—are raising is that the natural testosterone increase from the fertility drugs is actually negligible compared to the amount that the male body, especially  the highly-trained male body, produces naturally, and is certainly not enough to warrant a suspension by the NFL.

Tate is planning on appealing his suspension, and he (as well as many other athletes, scientists, and experts) believe he has a legitimate case to have the sentence reversed. He claims that the drug gave him “no competitive advantage” and has prided himself on following the league’s policy on PEDs since he joined the NFL 10 years ago.

In reality, Tate probably would not have been punished for his use of these drugs—in fact, he most likely would have been able to be granted an exemption from the league’s policy for his drugs specifically described by a fertility specialist. The problem, however, is that he did not disclose the use of the drug and instead of having this medication run by his league-approved doctor, he chose instead to go to an undisclosed fertility specialist. There may be exceptions made. The problems begin when athletes fail to disclose to the proper authorities their medical needs.

As the NFL has demonstrated time and time again, players are responsible for what they put in their bodies, and a positive test is not excused just because they are ignorant that what they are taking is a banned substance. Athletes should always check with their sports organization before starting any medication just to make sure that what they are taking isn’t on the prohibited list. As many athletes have painfully discovered, now including Golden Tate, ignorance of the rules is no excuse in the eyes of the league.

References

Gurevich, Rachel. “Clomid and Doping: The Facts Behind the Headlines.” Verywell Family, Verywell Family, 12 Feb. 2018.

Raanan, Jordan. “Giants’ Tate Handed 4-Game Ban for Fertility Drug.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 27 July 2019.

Vinopal, Lauren. “Golden Tate’s Fertility Drug Suspension Is Total Bullshit.” Fatherly, Fatherly, 30 July 2019.