At Super Bowl Media Day, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was asked to address a report that he used a banned substance. (Kevin Richardson/The Baltimore Sun video)

"They tested thousands of athletes at the Olympics and only found a couple cases?" he said. "Does a reasonable person believe only one or two people at the Olympics used growth hormone? I'd call anyone who thinks that grossly naive."

Humans have long sought advantages — legal and illegal — in all facets of life, Yesalis said, and elite athletes would by nature search as hard as anyone.

Robert W.H. Price, a sports psychologist based in Montgomery County, said many athletes he works with can perform at their highest level only when they feel they have exhausted every option for gaining an advantage.

"It really is the classic placebo effect," he said. "They think they've figured out a way to be better, and so they play better. Then they develop faith in what they think made them better, regardless of what science says."

Price is working with players preparing for the NFL scouting combine and sees firsthand how determined they are to find help others competing for jobs in the league might not have.

"That becomes the competition," he said. "Part of it is that they have to prove to themselves that they've done all they can, even if it involves something off the wall."

While Lewis and others have said Ross preys on those striving and naive athletes, Ross insists that his products work. He calls himself the "world's expert" on deer antler extract and believes the spray he sells contains IGF-1 and carries its muscle-restoring powers. He says an NFL establishment led by team doctors and trainers has conspired to discredit him because of the danger his methods pose to their livelihoods.

"When you ask God to use you," he said, "you don't get to recommend how he does it."