Column: NFL not in a hurry to start HGH testing
When the NFL and its players agreed to a 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, it was widely reported that one of the highlights of the new deal was the consent of the players to allow testing for (HGH), beginning with the 2011 season.
The NFL would have become the first professional sports league in the U.S. to institute HGH testing. Alas, the announcement proved to be premature. The league recently sent a memo to clubs advising them that testing for HGH would not take place at the beginning of the season and the possibility of HGH testing any time soon, if at all, is fading.
So, what happened? Although there was an agreement in principle between the parties, the details had yet to be worked out when the announcement was made. The exact language in the CBA reads, "Over the next several weeks, the parties will discuss and develop the specific arrangements...with the goal of beginning testing by the first week of the 2011 regular season." That language is hardly a guarantee of anything, other than the parties still had work to do before HGH testing became a reality.
The CBA goes on to say, "Pending agreement (the drug policy from the 2010 season) will remain in full force and effect." Of course, the 2010 drug policy makes no mention of HGH testing.
There are a number of reasons behind the collapse of the original agreement. For one thing, the only currently "reliable" - more on that issue in a moment - test for HGH is a blood test. Not surprisingly, a number of players loath the thought of being stuck with a needle. Furthermore, according to the experts, testing must take place within 12-24 hours of use in order to detect HGH, which means players will be forced to submit to the invasive procedure prior to and after games. Urine testing at those times is less intrusive and has become common place in professional sports. However, blood tests present a whole new dimension, mental as well as physical, especially during pre-game when players are preparing for battle.
In addition, a number of researchers believe the current blood test for HGH leaves much to be desired in the way of reliability. Scientist and anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin is among the doubters. Catlin told the New York Daily News that, "Every test (for HGH) will have false positives. The question is, what percentage can a sport stand?" From a player's perspective, the answer is clearly 'none.' Once information concerning a false positive is put out there to the general public, the player risks forever being labeled a cheater, regardless of whether the information is accurate or not.
In an effort to obtain more information on the test for HGH, NFLPA representatives met with officials from the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), the organization the league intends to designate to run the testing program. Not surprisingly, the meeting didn't go well. WADA is notorious for playing things close to the vest and refusing to divulge information that would aid in determining the reliability of the test. According to Catlin, WADA has not shared information with other anti-doping researchers about the rate of false positives since it began testing athletes for HGH. The lack of transparency is counterproductive to WADA's mission and creates doubt as to the effectiveness of the test, even if none should exist.
WADA first introduced its HGH test at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, and has conducted thousands of tests since that time. No Olympic athlete has ever tested positive. The first professional athlete to test positive for HGH was British rugby player Terry Newton in November 2009. MLB instituted HGH testing for Minor League players in 2010 and the first positive test came last month when former MLB player Mike Jacobs, who was playing for the Colorado Rockies' Triple-A team, tested positive.
At this point, HGH testing in the NFL is a long shot. The union, perhaps in an effort to get its members back to work, agreed to a provision for which it appears they now have buyer's remorse. The NFLPA has learned what its MLBPA brothers have long known. There may be an appropriate time to agree on HGH testing, but now is not that time.