Why Professional Athletes Fall for Health Scams
From titanium necklaces to recovery water, superstition and pseudoscience in athletics runs rampant
During his first Major League Baseball spring training in 2008, Matt Antonelli, a former second baseman for the San Diego Padres, found a pile of Phiten necklaces waiting in his locker. The blue-and-white nylon-coated chokers were infused with a dye-like substance called “aqua-titanium.” According to Phiten, a Japan-based athletic company, the necklaces can stabilize the bioelectric current running through the wearer’s body. “Phiten necklaces could help provide relief if you suffer from migraine headaches, lack of sleep, or have tension or pain in the neck, shoulders, or back,” reads the company’s pitch on its website. Antonelli was never a big believer in performance hacks, but he threw one on anyway.
“I remember guys would do this thing where they’d make you bend down and touch your toes. Then you’d throw on [the Phiten] necklace and do it again, and [they’d say] ‘see you’re stretching further now!’ he laughs. “I remember putting it on and being like, ‘I don’t know if I notice anything.’ I was pretty skeptical.”
Antonelli’s hunch was right. The company was founded in Kyoto in the early 1980s by an alternative medicine specialist named Yoshihiro Hirata, and while the website cites various studies conducted by The Society For Aqua Metal Research, experts have concluded that there is no systematic correlation between a titanium-imbued chain and organic enrichment. “At best, the necklace is a placebo,” says former New York Jets sideline physician Dr. Robert Glatter. “There is no scientific basis that wearing titanium around your neck could alter the body’s bioelectric potential to affect any significant change in performance.”
Despite the medical community’s hangups, Phiten has found a home on the collars of some of the world’s best baseball players. Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies was once a known fan, as was Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, and Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros. It may seem unlikely that millionaire athletes with access to some of the best medical care could end up following shoddy advice, yet titanium necklaces are just another example of pseudoscience’s long love affair with sports medicine. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ran into controversy in 2015 after swearing a recovery water cured his concussion. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, savants like Michael Phelps showed up for competition with circular bruises up and down their bodies, due to a treatment called cupping (the procedure is not harmful, but the science behind it is not very strong). And Tom Brady still hasn’t escaped the shadow of his “TB12” diet plan, which asks its users to drink massive amounts of water, among other things, to achieve maximum pliability.
“I remember guys would do this thing where they’d make you bend down and touch your toes. Then you’d throw on [the Phiten] necklace and do it again, and [they’d say] ‘see you’re stretching further now!’”
Professional athletes invest in their bodies. It’s speculated that LeBron James spends upwards of $1.5 million each year on diet, treatment, and fitness plans. So how do they keep getting bad information? For Antonelli, the answer was simple. “The way I always look at it was, ‘It’s not going to make me hit any worse,’ he says. “If I throw [the Phiten] on and I’m hitting better, I’m keeping it.”
Antonelli says professional athletes are under constant scrutiny to succeed, lest they surrender their position to the prospects behind them. That means that they’re always looking for an edge — in their gear, in their workouts, and in the supposed metaphysical qualities of titanium. He tells me he was never a particularly superstitious person, but in the big leagues, ballplayers start to get weird. “I remember going and eating Fruit Loops in the clubhouse, and if I got a hit that night, it’s an absolute certainty that I’m eating Fruit Loops the next night,” he tells me. Donning a Phiten necklace isn’t much different from any other prayer.
Unfortunately, that attitude stirs up a feedback loop, says Dr. Terry Simpson, an Arizona-based surgeon who hosts a podcast debunking myths in diet science. In a sport like baseball, where individual success and failure can vary wildly over the course of a season, players often have a difficult time zooming out to focus on the aggregate. Eventually, even a bowl of Fruit Loops can create confirmation bias. “You correlate things together. [Suddenly] you think that every time you don’t wash your socks you’re gonna get a big hit,” he says.
Athletes want to believe in a Holy Grail, but the truth is that sports medicine is a very narrow field. Tim Caulfield, author of the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, says that the basics of recovery science are fairly straightforward — any new discoveries that increase performance, recovery, or longevity are minor advancements, within the few stray percentage points that scientists haven’t already figured out.
“Almost everything else we do is in the margins, if it works at all. A lot of [trainers] are trying to justify their career, they’re trying to justify why you’re paying them money to be a part of their program,” he says. “That invites the idea of adding bells and whistles [to your workout]. I think we need to somehow create a system that doesn’t invite that. The incentive structure of training has to change.”
Caulfield adds that his daughter is a high-level fencer, and he watches her engage in regimens that he knows won’t supplement her performance but also won’t hurt. That is the greatest tension of the relationship between bunk science and sports: Cupping looks ugly, but it probably won’t make you swim any slower. Phiten necklaces come with plenty of occult baggage, but they’re certainly not going to impede someone from turning a double-play. How much is there to gain from prying wellness rituals away from the athletes who have let themselves believe in them? “For the most part, it’s harmless,” says Glatter, while adding that it still could be “problematic” for role models to openly flaunt ineffective medicine.
Caulfield argues that sometimes the fads athletes follow can be dangerous. He mentions the trendy platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, an extremely expensive procedure where doctors flood the patient’s circulatory system with a wave of plasma. Kobe Bryant is a famous proponent of PRP, but there remains little evidence that those injections are beneficial. “You’re talking about interventions that have the potential to be used [more widely],” says Caulfield. “The implicit hype you get from an athlete endorses that. And that can be harmful.”
Antonelli didn’t wear the Phiten necklace throughout his whole career, but when he did, he milked the placebo effect for all it was worth. “There’s so much failing in baseball,” he says. “It feels like at times you can go from feeling like the best player in the world at one minute, and the worst player in the world the next. When things are going well, you want to ride that wave. You start thinking, ‘What am I wearing? This necklace, okay, well I’m not taking that off.’”
That part of the athlete psyche is never going away. As long as their superstitions never get more predatory than a bowl of Fruit Loops, they’re probably harmless.