Kansas University football coach Terry Allen says it ``scares'' him, but well over half of his players use it, while KU baseball coach Bobby Randall doesn't want his players to touch the stuff.
It had been blamed -- and then exonerated -- in the deaths of three college wrestlers last year.
It's perfectly legal, and it's for sale at the neighborhood grocery store.
It's in your system right now.
It's creatine, perhaps the most widely used and most misunderstood substance in all of athletics, alternately reviled and revered, and it's basking in the glow of a Super Bowl, an assault on Roger Maris' hallowed home run record and a whole new era of college baseball somewhat derisively referred to as ``gorilla ball.''
And it's just as divisive as pervasive.
At KU, for instance, the director of strength and conditioning wishes the NCAA would ban creatine altogether, while the football strength coach thinks it can be an effective tool and has, in fact, used it himself.
It's no wonder, then, that Kansas University -- like, no doubt, countless other universities across the country -- is taking steps to get a handle on its use and potential for abuse.
The Kansas athletics department
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is in the process of developing a policy, which it hopes to have formalized in the next week or two, that just might require its student-athletes to report their use of creatine.
``The department policy is that we don't necessarily endorse the use of creatine, but we allow its use,'' KU athletics director Bob Frederick said. ``It's a sport-by-sport decision, and it's totally optional to the student-athlete. But if a coach decides he or she wants to use creatine, the department would pay for that creatine because we want to make sure it's of the highest quality and that we have some control over the dosage of it.''
For Frederick, that was no small step. Currently, football is the only program at KU that provides creatine for its student-athletes.
``You can walk into Hy-Vee and buy it off the shelf,'' Frederick said. ``That's where I changed on this. Our strength coaches, all our coaches ... everybody is generally opposed to its use, because we don't know what the long-term effects are. For me, it was very difficult to say, `OK, we're going to supervise it.' But because it is legal, because it's not banned by anybody, because there's no research evidence against it and it's sold anyplace, we felt it was better to try to educate and supervise the use of it. We thought we had to get out in front of it.''
What it is, what it isn't
Creatine is not a steroid or drug.
Made of three amino acids -- the building blocks of protein -- creatine is a compound the human body produces naturally to supply energy to muscles.
Typically, the average person metabolizes about two grams of creatine a day.
A typical athletic creatine supplement would be between 15 and 30 grams a day.
``The body produces creatine,'' KU football strength coach Kevin Coleman said. ``It's synthesized in the liver. All we're doing is giving a little more.''
In short, creatine supplements help speed recovery, allowing more work, faster.
``When you get fatigued, creatine allows you to recover quicker,'' Coleman explained. ``If I can recover quicker, if I can recover from yesterday's workout, I may be able to work out a little today.''
Unlike illegal steroids, however, creatine does not trigger muscle growth on its own. It simply enhances a weight-training regimen.
``There are so many myths out there about it,'' Frederick said. ``Some kids are taking it and not working out. Its only benefit is when there are hard workouts. You also have to eat well and you have to drink tremendous amounts of fluid. It's not a wonder drug. Some people are approaching it as a wonder drug -- take three tablespoons of it and you don't have to do anything else and you become Superman. That's not the case.''
Still, it's easy to understand its allure in football, where strict weight-training regimens are the rule and where bigger almost always is better.
Take KU's Michael Lies, for instance. When he enrolled at Kansas, he weighed 250 pounds and was told to play offensive line, where 300-pounders are the norm.
That was three years ago.
Now Lies carries 300 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, thanks, in part, to creatine.
``I think it definitely helped,'' said Lies, a senior from Wichita. ``But it's not the miracle drug some people make it out to be. You can't take creatine all the time and not work. It helps. I think it helped me some, but how much? I don't know.''
The down side
The medical community is torn on the short-term effects of creatine.
While there appears to be anecdotal evidence -- get used to that phrase -- of an increase in cramping and dehydration, there have been no conclusive studies.
``When you take creatine, you have to take in a tremendous amount of fluids,'' said Lynn Bott, KU's director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer. ``This is all anecdotal, but when a kid cramps up during a football game, the first thing in my mind is the creatine. But then again, we've had kids cramp up during two-a-days and they're not taking it.''
Three college wrestlers died last year, and a common thread was the use of creatine. But the Centers for Disease Control cleared creatine in their deaths, determining their drastic weight-loss techniques were to blame.
Creatine was off the hook, but it got its share of bad press.
``The scary part that some people got leery about was the big thing when the wrestlers died,'' Coleman said. ``The rumor was that they were on creatine. They were on creatine, but the doctors reported that creatine had nothing to do with their deaths. They died from dehydration.''
Further, the use of creatine as a supplement is new enough that there have been no signficant studies about the long-term ramifications, especially on the organs -- specifically the liver -- that must deal with increased amounts of creatine.
``This creatine thing is not over with,'' cautions Fred Roll, KU's director of strength and conditioning. ``We don't know what the long-term effects are. There is no good short-study research on it. We don't really know yet. I'm not saying somebody's going to find you're going to have children with three heads. But there's just not enough long-term research on it.''
``It's really a touchy subject in my mind,'' Allen added. ``It scares me. I don't want to become a big advocate of it, because I don't know how many years of research have been done on it. We actually dispense a direct number so nobody gets too much. Overloading is supposed to be a detriment.''
The other concern is quality of the product. Available in form from powder to pill to gum, creatine is the key ingredient in umpteen commercial products.
Because it's merely a supplement, creatine falls outside the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. As a result, there's a huge discrepancy in the quality of the creatine products on the market.
``My feelings are, I wish the NCAA would ban it all,'' Roll said. ``It's a strength coach's nightmare. Every day I get three or four phone calls trying to sell it to me. You don't know the quality of the stuff.''
``There are a lot of products out there,'' Bott added. ``Some do contain certain products that are illegal within the NCAA. Some have huge doses of caffeine. Someone will take it and have a little high. You feel pretty good, but it's just the caffeine.''
Because creatine might be laced with all sorts of other substances -- heck, even huge doses of caffeine in a student-athlete's blood supply can get him disqualified -- KU decided to get involved in the pipeline.
``From our standpoint,'' Allen said, ``we're trying to control something that could be misused.''
KU and creatine
No one at KU -- from the highest administrator to the lowest coach -- knows how widespread creatine use is on Mt. Oread.
``I guess one of my concerns is, I'm not sure how many guys are using it,'' Kansas baseball coach Bobby Randall said. ``It's over the counter so I wouldn't know. If you read Sports Illustrated, it seems like the whole world's taking it.
``Trainers and coaches need to know, and often nobody knows. Do we have guys taking it? I've only known one for sure. I suspect we've had guys taking it. I know some teams in college baseball are buying it for the players. I also know there are very few football teams that don't.''
No KU football players are currently on the stuff, simply because they're in the maintenance phase of their weightlifting routine. When the season ends, and the players again try to put on precious pounds, Coleman said between 66 and 70 players -- more than half -- will use creatine.
``If we didn't feel it had some positive benefit, we would not use it,'' Coleman said. ``If there were negative benefits, we'd not use it. The last thing we want is to have them take something that's not pure. There are some positive effects from creatine, but nothing replaces hard work, nothing replaces a good diet.''
Creatine is more beneficial in anaerobic sports, like football and baseball, than aerobic sports, like distance running or swimming.
``Some endurance athletes,'' Coleman said, ``take creatine to help them with their kick at the end.''
While creatine is known to be popular in football, its use among other sports is unknown and, truth be told, impossible to determine.
``I don't think it's very prevalent at all,'' KU swimming coach Gary Kempf said. ``It's not something we encourage. A couple of athletes have tried it. But I'm sure with kids these days, whenever something comes out and says it's going to make you bigger, stronger, faster, they're going to use it.''
Men's basketball has the highest profile of the KU sports, and those Jayhawks won't use creatine if coach Roy Williams has any say in the matter.
``I don't like it,'' Williams said. ``Our guys ... I told them about it. I just don't like it.''
But, as Roll says, ``I don't know how you can stop it. If you tell athletes not to take it, it's like telling them not to buy aspirin. They can just go out and buy it.''
-- Andrew Hartsock's phone number is 832-7216. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.