Sports supplements controversy touches Spurs KRT Wire Monday, November 28, 2005
For much of the past eight years, strength and conditioning coaches from the Spurs, Mavericks, the University of Texas, and other professional and college teams have provided their athletes with dietary supplements from a small Oklahoma City company, Nutrient Technology Corp.
Always looking for an edge, the coaches believe they have found it in Rebuild II, Nutri-build III and Recarb, products said to speed the recuperative process, a major plus for coping with the grind of the National Basketball Association season or minimizing the effects of heavy training.
But in using the supplements to keep Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and other elite athletes up and running, the coaches have placed their faith in the latest products developed by a controversial figure. Nutrient Technology is the current venture of Gary Lewellyn, a former stockbroker who entered the supplement business after serving time in prison for embezzlement and then came under scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.
The coaches who have bought Lewellyn's supplements for their athletes acknowledge doing so without checking his background, leaving themselves open to criticism.
Supplements can enter the market without being screened for purity, safety or effectiveness, making it particularly important, some industry observers say, for those who provide such products to athletes to be fully aware of the products' origins and manufacturers.
"The dietary supplement industry is fraught with people who come and go," said Mike Perko, chairman of the University of Alabama's health sciences department and a frequent writer and speaker on supplement issues. "For that reason, you'd want to look for someone who's been on the up and up for a long time."
Nutrient Technology was formed by Lewellyn in 1998 after shareholders of Performance Nutrition, a Dallas-based company that was publicly traded as a so-called penny stock, removed him as president.
Lewellyn's ouster came after the Dallas Observer published a lengthy article revealing that he was being sued by the SEC and had previously spent five years in prison for embezzling $17.7 million from two Iowa banks.
None of the strength and conditioning coaches interviewed for this report said they had been aware of Lewellyn's background, although some had bought Performance Nutrition's supplements for their athletes and have continued to buy through Nutrient Technology.
Some said they are inclined to overlook Lewellyn's past because they believe his products are safe and effective. "What you're talking about happened a long time ago," said Mike Brungardt, the Spurs' strength and conditioning coach. "People screw up."
But others said they now believe it was a mistake to provide Lewellyn's products to their athletes.
"If I knew the things you've shown me, there's no way he would have come in the building," said Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden, the assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning at Texas.
Lewellyn declined to be interviewed.
Federal law allows supplements to enter the market without screening by the FDA, creating, according to some industry observers, a Wild West mentality that makes using some products a risk.
"Oftentimes, there's no science involved," said Bill Gurley, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Arkansas. "It's just a matter of putting some stuff together, making sure the label adheres to basic standards and letting her rip - any damn claim you want."
The risks have been evident in sports, where positive drug tests have been blamed on supplements and the deaths of several prominent athletes have been linked to products containing the stimulant ephedra.
No sports organization has been more proactive in dealing with supplements than the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which severely limits the kinds of products college athletic programs can provide student-athletes.
Under an NCAA rule in effect since 2000, schools cannot distribute supplements containing banned substances or certain "muscle-building" ingredients such as free-form amino acids.
The only major pro league with a supplement policy is the National Football League, which allows its teams to distribute only those products it certifies. The policy, in place since 2004, requires a company seeking certification to go through a rigorous application process, including an investigation of its history.
"We look at a number of different things to try to get as good a picture as we can of the reputation and forthrightness of a particular company," said Adolpho Birch, NFL general counsel for labor relations.
So far, only one company, Experimental and Applied Sciences, commonly known as EAS, has been certified.
Regardless of the rules under which they operate, coaches and trainers who buy supplements for athletes have an obligation to learn as much as they can about the companies with which they do business, said Frank Uryasz, president of the National Center for Drug Free Sport.
"This is different from providing some piece of apparel or a knee brace," he said. "We're asking people to consume a product. At some level, you have a duty to exercise a great deal of due diligence."
Lewellyn established Performance Nutrition after spending five years in federal prisons in the 1980s as a result of his embezzlement case, called "the biggest white-collar crime in Iowa history" by The Des Moines Register.
The company initially concentrated on selling to college and pro teams through their strength and conditioning coaches, some of whom received stock in exchange for endorsements.
It later sought a wider market through infomercials starring Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston.
By marketing one of its products, Kids Plex Jr., as an alternative to Ritalin for children suffering from attention-deficit disorder, the company gained a niche in the industry.
But its success also led to its unraveling when the Observer ran its cover story "Hot product: World-class embezzler Gary Lewellyn rebounds with a fast-selling treatment for ADD."
At the time, the SEC had already filed a suit alleging that Lewellyn and others schemed to boost Performance Nutrition's stock price by disseminating false information regarding the company's financial health and athlete endorsements. Such a scheme is known as a "pump and dump" because investors quickly sell off their stock after making the bogus claims.
At the heart of the scheme, the SEC alleged, was Charles Bazarian, a notorious Oklahoma City con man who had just completed a 3 1/2-year prison stretch for crimes that led to the failures of five savings and loans.
The SEC ultimately obtained a judgment against Bazarian barring him from serving as an officer or director of a public company and requiring him to pay $7 million.
Lewellyn's involvement ended with a settlement in which he agreed not to violate securities laws while neither admitting nor denying the allegations against him.
The story also caught the attention of the FDA, which warned the company to stop touting Kids Plex Jr. as a treatment for ADD. Only products that prove effectiveness and receive pre-market approval as drugs can make such claims.
The FDA warning caused the company to recall containers of Kids Plex Jr. with that claim on the labels.
Performance Nutrition went out of business in March 1997, six months after Lewellyn's removal as president, when its new management filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The dissolution created a web of suits and countersuits that revealed much of the company's inner workings, including the fact that formulas for its supplements were developed by another felon, Jonathan Whaley, who had pleaded guilty to a charge of attempting to manufacture a synthetic form of cocaine.
The formulas came to Lewellyn's attention when he was incarcerated with Whaley's older brother, Walker Whaley, who was convicted of conspiracy for his role in the synthetic-cocaine scheme.
In depositions, Lewellyn said he revised the formulas after a prominent investor learned of the Whaleys' past.
"Because their criminal convictions involved . . . manufacturing artificial cocaine and we were in the nutrition business," Lewellyn testified, "that's what really upset (the investor)."
Nutrient Technology Corp., a private company with Lewellyn's residence as its mailing address, has a far lower profile than Performance Nutrition.
The supplements it sells are also different.
Its most heavily promoted product is Rebuild II, a capsule labeled as a "proprietary blend" of glucosamine, amino acids and the anti-inflammatory methylsulfonylmethane. Rebuild II and Nutri-build III - a similar product sold in powder form - have proved popular with NBA teams. In addition to the Mavericks and Spurs, the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers have used the products.
Another supplement, Recarb
, has been used by Texas and other college programs, including Purdue University, the University of Colorado and the University of Minnesota.
The product, promoted as a high-carbohydrate, post-exercise supplement, isn't labeled as containing amino acids or other ingredients deemed impermissible by the NCAA.
But at least two programs, Texas and Purdue, haven't used it since learning in the spring that its labeling as a "protein blend" could indicate the presence of impermissible ingredients, according to officials at the schools. Comments to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by the Spurs' Brungardt and his partner in Muscle Works, a company that sells Nutrient Technology's supplements online and to retail outlets, raise further questions about the product. In separate interviews, Brungardt and his partner, Ken Poletti, said Lewellyn told them Recarb was in fact Nutri-build III sold under a different name. They said Lewellyn made the remark when they sought to learn whether they could sell Nutri-build III to NCAA schools. "He said, `I'm already in those places (colleges), and we can't sell them the Nutri-build because we sell it under a different label called Recarb,'." Poletti said.
Nutrient Technology's products are manufactured to Lewellyn's specifications at Progressive Laboratories, an Irving company that often blends and packages supplements on a contract basis, said David Palmer, the company's president.
Palmer said he has long been aware of Lewellyn's background.
"Initially, yeah, it did (cause concern)," he said. "But, by the same token, people make mistakes. They pay their debts to society and then have an opportunity to start fresh."
As evidence of the products' safety and effectiveness, Palmer cited testing done on Rebuild II at Ball State University in Indiana.
"Believe me, this formula didn't get dreamed up one night," he said. "It evolved over a period of months through studies at Ball State."
The Ball State research was funded by Nutrient Technology and conducted by David Pearson, an associate professor of physical education.
In November 1993, Pearson was identified in a Performance Nutrition news release as one of the endorsers scheduled to appear in the company's infomercials. Four months later, he was issued 5,000 shares of Performance Nutrition stock, according to records stemming from bankruptcy proceedings.
A researcher who has received financial benefits from a product manufacturer may not be considered impartial, according to some who follow the industry.
"It's just something that screams `red flag,' " said Perko, the University of Alabama professor.
Pearson did not respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment. Providing the supplements used by the Spurs, winners of three NBA titles since 1999, has given Lewellyn a certain cachet. Brungardt said he has been buying Nutrient Technology's supplements for the Spurs since meeting Lewellyn at a convention in 1998, soon after the company began doing business, and he sees no reason to stop. "The bottom line is we've had over seven years of success (with the products)," he said. "And I can say for a fact that, in rehab situations, they have significantly helped us." Largely on a recommendation from Brungardt, the Mavericks made Nutri-build III the only supplement they distributed to their players last season, said Robert Hackett, the team's strength and conditioning coach. Hackett, who assumed responsibility for the team's supplements after the 2003-04 season, described himself as "stunned" when he was informed of Lewellyn's background. "This raises a red flag because he has a background we weren't aware of," he said. After the interview, the Star-Telegram sought to learn from the Mavericks whether they would continue to buy Nutri-build III, but neither Hackett nor others in the organization would provide that information. Team owner Mark Cuban declined to be interviewed on the subject, saying that information is "private."
UT's Madden ordered Recarb three times between September 2000 and July 2004, university records show. For $4,600, UT received 2,100 40-gram, single-serving bottles and four 2.5-kilogram containers of the product.
Madden, who came to UT from the University of North Carolina with head football coach Mack Brown in 1998 and is widely seen as a key component of Brown's success, is one of the most visible members of his profession and has long been aligned with Lewellyn.
In January 1991, while working at the University of Colorado, Madden wrote a letter on CU letterhead stating that he had been providing Performance Nutrition's supplements to the university's student-athletes for three seasons.
"They love the supplements and are always standing in line for the next shipment," he wrote in the letter, which was distributed to potential investors when the company went public.
A little more than a year after the letter was written, Madden received 8,150 shares of Performance Nutrition's stock, according to the bankruptcy records. At the time the stock was issued, just days after the company went public, it was trading at $8 a share, making its value more than $65,000.
Madden said Lewellyn gave him the stock before Performance Nutrition went public as compensation for serving on its advisory board. He said he was restricted from selling it for five years and never made money.
He said the idea that his dealings with Lewellyn while he was at Colorado were a conflict of interest is a "nonissue" in his mind because he never made money off the stock.
He also scoffed at the notion that he or other coaches should have been aware of Lewellyn's background.
"What you don't understand is, in our business, we get salesmen every single day," he said. "We might get five or six.
"This was a guy I met in the late `80s. He seemed like a nice guy, and he had a product that was great. Guys who have a great product, you talk to them more often than you talk to guys who don't have a great product, because you're always trying to find what's best for your athletes.
"He was always cordial, always polite. There wasn't a sign on his chest that said, `I've been in prison.' "