By Mike Fish
CUMMING, Ga. -- Mack Henry "Hank'' Sloan is the operator of a modest-sized clinic on the northern outskirts of Atlanta. He conducts his business below the radar in nearly every way, but stands out in one unique area: He lends a trusted healing hand to some of the hottest names in pro sports, including headline-grabbing Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens, Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes and mercurial Redskins running back Clinton Portis. The soft-spoken, unassuming Sloan volunteers that he attends to players from 22 different NFL teams.
The keys to his popularity in the jock community are his outside-the-box methods, which are thought -- at least by Sloan himself and the players he treats -- to speed the return from injury. And so Sloan occupies a place on the medical fringe of sports, treating athletes away from the watchful eye of team doctors and training staffs. Athletes come seeking a competitive edge or perhaps as a last resort when conventional methods have failed.
The state of Georgia intends to find out. Case in point: Detroit Lions defensive end Kalimba Edwards sacrificed half of his off-days this season, flying to Atlanta every other Tuesday for treatment from Sloan so he could play through a groin injury. Over the past two years, Edwards acknowledges receiving prolotherapy injections, liquid vitamins, IVs, anti-inflammatory shots and other non-steroidal injections from Sloan, who, Edwards assumes, is a medical doctor.
"I'm pretty sure he is," he says.
"You got to understand: Dr. Sloan, he is constantly researching the best type of equipment, the best of that type of stuff to use on you so he can be as noninvasive as possible," explains Edwards, a second-round pick in 2002 who has twice led the Lions in sacks. "I mean, the dude is awesome. Man, he is straight, legit. He is official."
That's the assumption, too, of Ed Hartwell, the Atlanta Falcons' oft-injured middle linebacker who comes by Sloan's office at least once a week.
"Yeah, he's a doctor," Hartwell says. "He's an M.D. . . . I know [he is]. You see his stuff in his office and stuff. He's got it."
But wait, Sloan responds: "I don't ever present myself as a medical doctor."
Sloan, though, is currently under investigation by Georgia authorities for practicing medicine without a license, a felony offense, ESPN.com has learned. The 36-year-old Sloan calls himself a naturopath, a practitioner of a medical discipline that emphasizes holistic approaches to enhance the body's innate ability to recover. Naturopathy is licensed in only 14 states -- but not Georgia. As for the training Sloan says he has received, the bulk of it is from a number of distance learning programs that are not accredited in the U.S. and, in one case, is the subject of an investigation by Kentucky medical and legal authorities.
Dr. James McNatt, medical director for Georgia's Composite State Board of Medical Examiners, confirmed the Georgia investigation, telling ESPN.com: "[Sloan] may be doing stuff that would be considered the practice of naturopathy, but he can't do that in Georgia. If you are injecting a chemical into somebody's body to treat them for a problem or to fix something, that would be the practice of medicine."
Should the board bring findings against Sloan, a public cease-and-desist order would be issued. Violation of the order typically results in cases being turned over for criminal prosecution.
Georgia authorities began their formal investigation in late October after Wyndy Shelton, 33, filed a complaint that her 8-year-old daughter witnessed Sloan injecting a man in his exposed buttocks while the girl was a guest on a houseboat owned by Sloan.
During their probe, investigators have accessed a series of almost two-year-old e-mail messages to blogger Sal Marinello, in which Sloan candidly expressed a familiarity with human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), both of which are banned substances shown to increase the rate of muscle repair after injury as well as the rate of muscle growth from training. There is no indication, however, that Sloan or any of his athletes ever used the substances. Nor have any of his athletes ever tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.
In one of those e-mails, Sloan offered: "I just recently healed a 60% tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in a Pro Baseball Player using a combination of GH, IGF-1, and prolotherpy [sic]. We have the team MRI, pre and post, to prove it . . . I'm very cautious and use almost all natural agents, seeing that I am trying to heal tissue, not band aid injury. IFG-1 [sic] is used sparingly and in very specific protocols."
Sloan says now that in those e-mails he was explaining a research project he was participating in at the time with a now-defunct Colorado biotechnology firm. He also denies use of banned substances in his practice.
Instead, among an assortment of treatments for speeding the return of star athletes including Owens, Sloan claims to prescribe natural, non-steroidal injections to help regrow tendons and ligaments. Sloan says he was part of the team that rehabbed Owens, then with the Eagles, from a broken leg at breakneck speed prior to the Super Bowl two years ago. And last summer, he says, T.O. summoned him to the Cowboys' camp to oversee his recovery from a hamstring injury.
Attempts by ESPN.com to contact Owens, both through the Cowboys and his agent, for comment about Sloan were unsuccessful.
Leading orthopedic surgeons and scientists roundly debunk the notion that tendons and ligaments can be regrown via prolotherapy treatments, which involve injections of a sugar water solution. If Sloan is able to regrow tendons and ligaments, suggests prominent internist and sports medicine specialist Dr. Gary Wadler, "He not only would own the Nobel Prize, he would go down in the annals as one of the great minds of all time if it were that simple."
Equally dubious about Sloan's science is Dr. Ralph Gambardella, president and board chairman of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, where Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction -- better known as Tommy John elbow surgery.
"What I am unsure of is what the science is behind what this gentleman or whoever would be saying," says Gambardella, who also serves as president of the Association of Major League Baseball Team Physicians. "To say that the tendon or ligament regrows is a stretch of the imagination. I don't think you can take a tendon that is torn or absent in a spot and regrow it, so to speak, like a starfish."
Despite his critics, Sloan has a band of believers inside locker rooms.
He says about half of the Atlanta Falcons wandered into his office this past season.
He says he treated 10 to 15 NFL athletes a week this fall, and regularly works with even more out-of-season.
He says he and personal trainer Melvyn Williams have had five Washington Redskins starters, including Portis, "under contract" for the past two seasons. Sloan says he flies up to the nation's capital every other Friday to care for his athletes.
And he speaks of a working relationship with mega-agent Drew Rosenhaus, whose clients include Owens and Portis. Rosenhaus declined to comment on their relationships with Sloan or the medical treatment afforded his players, saying, "I just know that my dealings with [Sloan] have been positive. And I think he does an excellent job. . . . I have a high opinion of him."
When pressed for details about Sloan's practice, Rosenhaus twice abruptly ended telephone interviews.
On a recent Friday, Sloan is dressed in blue jeans and a collarless, dark-blue knit shirt as he leads a reporter on a tour of his Genesis Health Center, which sits in an office park of two-story, red-brick buildings. He pauses often to demonstrate the electrical machines -- with names such as Electro Acuscope and Myopulse, and High-beam Therapeutic Laser -- and hyperbaric chambers spread throughout a half dozen or so treatment rooms.
"They're all [FDA] approved machines," Sloan says. "I can't take any scrutiny for that. Somebody might say they don't work. And I'll say, 'Come to my clinic for a week and see how quick people are feeling better.'"
Slight of build with a stubble of sandy hair, he looks more like actor Ed Harris than a guy who rubs shoulders with pro athletes. Most days, he says, his wife and mother work alongside his office staff. The scriptural passages found throughout the facility give it a homey, religious feel. But the place has a powerful sports-bar atmosphere, too, as it is punctuated by memorabilia and photos of athletes.
Sloan says he picked up his first sports clients about five years ago: Owens, then with the San Francisco 49ers, and John Rocker, the former reliever with the Atlanta Braves.
"We text [message] probably weekly, every other week," Sloan says about his contact with Owens. "Sometimes 10 times a day depending on what he needs. He has therapists there now [in Dallas] that are running his machines that he got from me."
And the nature of the exchanges between Owens and Sloan?
"'This thing ain't feeling right; what do I do about it?'" Sloan says. "Or, 'How does this machine need to be worked?'"
Sloan cautions that athletes are only a small part of his practice. But in the next breath, he says he treated three Atlanta Falcons the day before this mid-November interview.
"They needed a little tune-up," he explains. "One guy had just a sore hamstring, and he wanted me to flush it out. I used the laser on it. He felt great when he left. If he didn't get that done -- the teams are still using just electrical stim [stimulation] and ice. And he wouldn't feel much better."
Sloan says the Falcons' franchise star, Michael Vick, came by his office, less than a 25-minute drive from the team's practice facility, early in the 2005 season for treatment after he strained ligaments in his right knee.
"Just a couple times," Sloan volunteers. "He's not very prone to do therapy of any kind. The guys say he comes around the hot tub at the [Falcons] facility, sticks his toe in -- 'Oh, too hot. I don't want to put that in there.'"
Falcons general manager Rich McKay, through a team spokesman, declined comment for this story, and also refused to make Dr. Scott Gillogly, the Falcons' head physician and orthopedic surgeon, available for an interview.
Gillogly, however, suggested other orthopedic surgeons who might address the subject, including Dr. Benjamin Shaffer, team physician for both the Washington Nationals and Capitals.
"[Sloan's] putting an injection in somebody?" Shaffer asked. "Hell, yeah, you're practicing medicine. And I don't know what a naturopath is. I don't want to be critical of him. It may be a very recognized entity. I just, personally, am not aware of that particular subspecialty. But certainly anybody, no matter what they call themselves, if they are injecting medicine, if they are handing out medicine, if they are applying a treatment technique and they are not certified in the state in which they are doing it, that is practicing without a license. That is just common sense.
"And I would be very adamant to the player and the [team] management that I would not advocate that kind of treatment without some legitimacy. And that is beyond not even standing up to scientific scrutiny. That is not even legitimacy from a professional standpoint. It is not legitimate; it is not legal."
Asked to describe his medical expertise, Sloan says he is a "nonsurgical, soft-tissue rehabilitation specialist." He criticizes conventional training practices as lagging behind the times, which is why, he says, players find their way to his door.
Back in his corner office, Sloan perches behind his desk.
"T.O. is a good example," he says. "I mean, we have cases every week. Like I said, one of the Falcons' players had a pretty severe nerve injury in his lower leg, and he wasn't supposed to play for two weeks. He was out one week."
As to his healing credentials, Sloan claims he has a "stack of certificates." ESPN.com, though, has been unable to document anything beyond his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Georgia, Class of 1994. He says he has a European medical degree that he never bothered to transfer to Georgia. He mentions a degree from a one-year physical therapy school in Atlanta, though adds that the school changed names and he can't recall the new one. He claims to have earned naturopathic doctor degrees from the Southern Graduate Institute in Falcon, Ky., and the University of Science Art & Technology [USAT] in Montserrat, West Indies. Neither is recognized by any U.S. accreditation body.
He also claims to have earned a doctorate in public health last year from USAT, and says he's completing a master's in nursing from the Montserrat school.
Both USAT and the Southern Graduate Institute have drawn the attention of the Kentucky medical board and state attorney general's office following a series of articles in October by the Lexington Herald-Leader about Steve Arnett, founder of the Southern Graduate Institute. According to the newspaper, that school has been portrayed as a diploma mill, and Arnett as a hustler who has been in trouble with the authorities in the past for puffing up his credentials.
Arnett also is connected to USAT in Montserrat, where he has been listed on the school's Web site as its chief academic officer and a board member. The site also listed him as an M.D. As recently as last January, Sloan also was listed on the USAT Web site as a faculty member in the Basic Science Department. (The school's Web site currently doesn't list any faculty.)
Sloan might have stayed below the radar in Georgia but for the incident on his houseboat on Lake Lanier, about 40 miles north of Atlanta. On a Saturday afternoon this past October, an 8-year-old girl said she saw Sloan inject a man with an unknown substance in his bare buttock. Shelton, the girl's mother, reported the incident to the local sheriff's department, which directed her to medical authorities.
According to an incident report, the girl's father, who is estranged from her mother, told deputies that "Hank was a sport doctor and he uses his boat sometimes to give people shots."
Sloan later acknowledged the incident to deputies, saying that the children weren't supposed to be in the bedroom area of the boat.
Sloan told ESPN.com that the man being injected is a stockbroker friend, and that the injection was vitamin B-12.
"You can't give somebody a B-12 injection unless you are licensed," says McNatt, medical director of the Georgia state board. "It is a medical injection. My interpretation of it is that [he] is diagnosing a B-12 deficiency and is giving a B-12 injection to remedy that."
The Georgia state board specifically defines unlawful practice without a medical license this way: diagnosis or treatment of disease or injuries . . . recommend or prescribe any form of treatment . . . receive any fee, gift or compensation . . . maintain office for the reception, examination or treatment of diseased or injured . . . attach the title M.D., Surgeon, Doctor.
On the latest business license application filed in Cumming, Ga., the words "Doctors office" are written under the activity heading for the business being conducted at Sloan's Genesis Health Center. The application also lists just one employee.
Sloan contends that he works under the supervision of a licensed physician, Dr. Barry N. Jones, when he injects patients, and thus isn't breaking Georgia law. Jones, 64, specializes in psychiatry and operates an addictive disease practice about four miles from Sloan's office. He is listed as clinical director of Sloan's practice, and Sloan says Jones works in his office on Tuesdays.
"From what I have heard, that doesn't in any way qualify as an adequate supervision of somebody's practice," McNatt says.
Repeated messages left at Jones' office by ESPN.com went unanswered.
Attorney Montfort Ray, who represents both Sloan and Jones, says: "Dr. Jones and Dr. Sloan are in practice together, and Dr. Jones is the supervising physician. He has been the supervising physician for a number of years. The board is aware of their practice and has no problem with it."
There is no indication that Jones was on the boat during the injection witnessed by the young girl. And the pro athletes contacted by ESPN.com who've had extensive treatment or injections from Sloan say they aren't familiar with Jones.
Former NBA star Allan Houston, now an analyst for ESPN, acknowledges experimenting with prolotherapy injections in a last-ditch effort to prolong his career, and says he bought a laser machine from Sloan after learning about his practice from a personal trainer.
"He definitely manages it," Houston says about Sloan. "He is definitely hands-on. He is right there. . . . He was the one."
Hartwell, standing in front of his locker after a Falcons late-season practice, said he isn't familiar with anyone supervising Sloan, either.
"Jones? Don't know him," Hartwell says.
The name is new to Edwards, too: "Dr. who? Barry Jones? Who is Barry Jones? No, I don't know who Barry Jones is. Only person I know is Dr. Sloan."
Asked if a Dr. Jones oversaw any of his injections, Edwards says: "No, it is [Sloan]. He does it. You see Dr. Sloan. When you go see Dr. Sloan, you see Dr. Sloan. He don't put you off on nobody else, you hear me?"
Sloan's practice draws from a substantial number of athletes, principally NFL players, who make the Atlanta area their offseason home or who played college football in the South. Another draw, apparently, is his affiliation with the Hyperbaric Therapy Center, which lists him as a medical researcher and shares his 6,500-square-foot office.
Spikes, who plays for the Buffalo Bills but lives in Georgia in the offseason, went to Sloan for treatment for an Achilles injury before the 2006 season.
"It is just him, but he has some assistants and everything," Spikes says. "He also has the hyperbaric chambers, too. So you get like full-treatment sessions. After you get the laser or the micro-current, then you go spend an hour in a hyperbaric chamber. So it is like a full-stop shop. You get everything."
When asked if the Bills are aware of the treatments Sloan performs on him, Spikes says, "I mean, he's just a regular rehab guy. So you ain't we're all grown men. You ain't got to report nothing to nobody."
Some players said they showed up at Sloan's doorstep after they struck out with traditional medical practices.
Hartwell says he was told about Sloan by other players after he injured an Achilles tendon last season, and he continues to see him for his balky knees.
"We actually had that [Achilles] rehabbed and we had that back about three months ahead of time, which is incredible," Sloan says.
Sloan also has capitalized on his association with T.O.
"I mean, he put T.O. back in the Super Bowl," Edwards says. "And cats were like, 'He's gonna be out 'til next year.' He's astounding."
Before Owens' recovery for the 2005 Super Bowl, Sloan's role in his treatment was mentioned in a profile of the wide receiver's training methods in an October 2004 issue of "Muscle and Fitness Magazine." The story caught the eye of Marinello, a New Jersey certified strength and conditioning specialist who was particularly skeptical of a reference to Sloan's prescribing "natural, non-steroidal injections to help regrow tendons and ligaments in injured areas" for Owens.
Marinello's comments on a blog site prompted Sloan to send an email response about the potential to combine prolotherapy with growth hormone and IGF-1, though Sloan insisted in a subsequent email that he uses "only prolotherapy" and natural healing agents. As for his most celebrated client, one of Sloan's emails said: "I have never injected T.O. with any GH or IGF-1."
Ray, Sloan's attorney, told ESPN.com that Sloan was "responding academically" and speaking solely to "the state of scientific research in that area."
"We can't use any remote growth [hormone] or IGF-1 because of the NFL regulations," Sloan says. "And with the quality and caliber of guys I work with, I never had any problem with any athlete testing weird on any tests."
Sloan adds: "I don't know anything about anabolics, and I usually don't know anything about those kinds of things. I keep them out of my computer and out of my mind. I really don't try to go down the road with them."
Last year, prolotherapy made sports headlines after Bode Miller and three other members of the U.S. ski team traveled to Mexico for treatments from embattled orthopedic specialist Milne Ongley, who had been banned from practicing his trade in the United States. The athletes claimed relief from knee pain, even though California's medical board, which found Ongley to be practicing medicine without a license, had previously labeled the treatment "devoid of medical value."
Whether the alternative therapy truly aids in the regrowth of tendons and ligaments is a hot-button question.
Even Sloan's patients give it mixed reviews. Houston says he got nothing out of it; but Edwards, who saw Sloan three days a week during the first month of his treatment, cites the injections as a factor in his recovery.
The suggestion that a natural process can trigger the re-growth of tendons and ligaments is foreign to almost all traditional medical and orthopedic specialists. Four leading surgeons contacted by ESPN.com dismiss it as pseudoscience, lacking any scientific base.
"The techniques [used by Sloan] sound totally experimental," says Dr. Peter Millett, a shoulder and elbow specialist at Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo., and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. "I must say that his credentials are quite suspect as well. I also think it would be extremely rare for one doctor to see 10-15 NFL players per week. I looked at [Sloan's] Web site. There is very little, if any, data to support the use of the treatments that are listed."
Gambardella, from the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, champions the move toward biologics in taking advantage of things such as stem cell research. But once beyond a possible placebo effect, he says, he doesn't see the same kind of study or research to support prolotherapy.
"This whole homeopathic and nutruceuticals world that we live in is totally unregulated, and that is where the problem is," Gambardella says. "It is not evidenced-based. It is treating symptoms. And if someone says their symptoms get better, that is fine. The problem is, it is a very, very difficult situation, because it is an unregulated business and it is out of control.
"In the medical world, insurance companies don't reimburse for any of this stuff, blah, blah. So these people can have an unregulated, very lucrative cash business."
Gambardella says a telltale sign that something is different about Sloan's practice is the presence of the photos of his patients on his office walls.
"Well, that is a kudo to him for marketing," Gambardella says. "Our clinic here, which has been around now for over 30 years and has taken care of probably more professional athletes than anybody at anytime -- you won't find a picture up. We're just not into that.
"I tell people all the time [that] this is a service industry. We treat people. And bartenders are a service industry as well."