Doctor in Panthers case had own vision of health

Updated: September 7, 2006, 8:37 AM ET
By Tom Farrey | ESPN The Magazine

The 59-year-old father of two grown children considered himself a fan of skateboarder Tony Hawk and the forward 960. He insisted that we are all living in a "cesspool" of "200,000 weird chemicals" that are breaking down our bodies. He asserted that President Bush's policies suggested a lack of testosterone. He wondered whether a friend of his was right, that he should run for Congress as a Libertarian. As conversations with medical doctors go, my interview with James Shortt a year ago was decidedly, um, eclectic, to put it kindly.

But one comment stood out from all the others in his smorgasbord of the outrageous. I circled and starred the quote, then filed it away for future reference.

"I don't care about the rules," Shortt said. "I care about health, not about people in domed buildings making rules based on the opinions of other people who don't know diddly."

It was an ominous admission for a guy pleading not guilty to breaking federal law regarding the distribution of steroids and growth hormone. How much of a cowboy the doctor truly was in his treatment of Carolina Panthers players would only reveal itself this year, when details of his care became public during his trial.

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Shortt prescribed human growth hormone and testosterone to one player even though initial tests showed that the player had normal levels of each in his body, according to an analysis of medical records submitted to the court by Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York physician and consultant to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Shortt also prescribed anti-estrogens for no reason other than to prevent the enlarged breasts that can result from testosterone use. The name of the player, along with all the others in Wadler's 24-page report, was redacted from court records. The Charlotte Observer recently identified him as Todd Steussie, a 6-foot-6 left tackle who now plays for the St. Louis Rams.

Another player, identified by the Observer as guard Kevin Donnalley, was prescribed testosterone even though his father had a stroke at age 40. That should have been of concern when prescribing anabolic steroids because of the association of these drugs with forms of vascular diseases, Wadler wrote. Shortt also shipped HGH to Donnalley, who has since retired from the NFL.

Center Jeff Mitchell, also identified by the paper, was a third starting lineman on the Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl in January 2004. Shortt diagnosed him with hypogonadism, a testosterone deficiency, without medical support for such a claim. Wadler's report indicates Mitchell was already on growth hormone when he came to the doctor; Shortt added testosterone to Mitchell's regimen. At one point, a nurse noted that the player's testicles had shrunk. Mitchell is currently an unsigned free agent.

Overall, the picture painted by Wadler is that of a rogue doctor who was too eager to dispense drugs for purposes that had more to do with performance enhancement than medicine.

"You cannot just say, 'I don't care what the law is; I'm doing it my way,'" Wadler said in an interview recently. "This is not Frank Sinatra medicine."

Shortt has since had his medical license taken away by the state of South Carolina and reached a plea deal with prosecutors. A judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison -- a sentence Shortt is appealing. He was unavailable for comment for this story, and his public defender Allen Burnside did not return calls.

His medical judgment with other, non-athlete patients has come under scrutiny, too. In July, Shortt settled a lawsuit with a widow who claimed the testosterone cream her husband, a retired engineer, was given after being diagnosed with prostate cancer led to his death; the doctor denied many of the claims in the suit but his insurance carrier disposed of it with a reported $200,000 payment. Shortt faces a state criminal investigation in the March 2004 death of a woman, Katherine Bibeau, who died after receiving intravenous hydrogen peroxide he claimed would help her multiple sclerosis. He has been sued by the family of Bibeau.

James Shortt, right.
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainFormer South Carolina doctor James Shortt, right, with his attorney Allen Burnside, is appealing his sentence of a year and a day for conspiring to illegally prescribe steroids to NFL players.

In my interview with Shortt a year ago, he struck me not so much as an East Coast version of BALCO founder Victor Conte, girding for sports infamy, but more as a doctor who had little patience for mainstream medical orthodoxy. He was a gleeful devotee of hormonal supplementation, not just as a means to treat disease but as a way of warding off all sorts of health problems. Though he quit football after his freshman year in high school, he remembered the pain associated with playing the game. And he was overcome by the "not normal" physical violence that his pro football patients were asked to endure.

"What I do is preventative medicine," he declared. "Why wait until an athlete is injured? These hormones won't help keep an injury from occurring, but they will help with healing and repair once the athlete is hurt."

All true, if accounts of athletes who have taken the drugs are accurate. But the anticipation of sports injury isn't a legal justification for prescribing such controlled substances. And Shortt hinted that he realized as much, despite his not guilty plea at the time.

"Our next interview might be in Club Fed," he said.

I'll bring the Tony Hawk bobblehead, if it helps him pass the time.

Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer with ESPN the Magazine, and a contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN's Outside the Lines. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.

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