Richard Rydze, a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team from 1985 until 2007, is currently in court to face numerous charges of anabolic steroid trafficking and unlawful distribution of human growth hormone (hGH). It certainly looks bad for the Steelers and the National Football League. But is the NFL really in trouble?
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had some time to distance themselves from Rydze. After all, Rydze was dismissed from his position as a team doctor in June 2007. This was shortly after he became a target in a steroid and fraud investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). Rydze wasn’t indicted for any criminal wrongdoing until 2012. And his trial just started in January 2017. So, from a public relations standpoint, the Steelers and NFL have had no association whatsoever with Rydze for almost a decade.
Furthermore, the criminal charges against Rydze all occurred after he resigned from the Steelers medical staff. The period of misconduct cited in the 2012 federal indictment occurred between September 2007 and March 2011. This was months after Rydze left the Steelers.
Nonetheless, Rydze was involved with the prescribing of a wide variety of anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) often used by athletes including testosterone enanthate, testosterone cypionate, nandrolone decanoate (Deca Durabolin), stanozolol (Winstrol), oxandrolone (Anavar) and human growth hormone (hGH). Rydze purchased many of these PEDs prior to 2007 at the same time that he was administering medical care to Steeler football players.
Thanks to credit card receipts and statements obtained by federal investigators in 2007, we know that Rydze purchased at least $150,000 worth of steroids and hGH while he was a Steeler team doctor and an internal medicine specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). The PEDs were purchased from a compounding pharmacy called Signature Pharmacy in Orlando that became notorious for shipping steroids and hGH to numerous professional athletes including several NFL football players and Major League Baseball players.
Yet Rydze has always adamantly insisted that he never ever gave steroids, hGH or any prohibited substances to football players in his position on the Steelers medical staff. Rydze admitted experimenting with hGH therapy as an off-label treatment for soft tissue tendon and ligament injuries in his private practice involving non-professional athletes. But he denies offering the treatment to any NFL players.
“That whole thing got way overblown,” Rydze maintained in a 2007 interview with ESPN’s Mike Fish. “I was doing some kind of little bit of research back then and using growth hormone to help heal people with tendon injuries. That seems to be, in my estimation in looking at that hormone, the only role it really plays in helping people. It does seem to make you heal better, quicker. So we were using it with various orthopedic patients.
“It was never done in athletes. It was never with any Steelers.”
The off-label use of FDA-approved medications is generally permitted with the explicit exception of hGH therapy. The off-label use of hGH for the treatment of soft tissue injuries is a crime. It is the “only drug for which Congress has expressly prohibited the off-label distribution or possession with intent to distribute” according to FDA spokesperson Susan Cruzan. Yet, Rydze nonetheless believes a doctor should never deny patients a therapy that can facilitate healing.
“I know it has caused me a lot of grief, simply because I believe in it and I know what it does,” Rydze said. “And to deny people the effect to heal better — that is the art of medicine, to make people heal. And using something off-label, which we use for many, many drugs. I don’t see how someone can single out one thing and say you can’t use it for off-label use. And you show me there is one side effect, and I’d be a believer. But I have never seen a side effect. And I just think it is just ignorance of people who don’t know. They just hear about it, and they assume it is bad.”
It remains to be seen whether the Rydze trial will reflect negatively on the Steelers. However, it is a certainty that the trial will continue to demonize PEDs and keep potentially useful therapies out of the reach of the general public due to the stigma associated with PEDs.