Originally Published: January 6, 2016 6 a.m.
The end of 2015 brought another doping scandal in sports. Raise your hand if you were surprised. The bigger question should be, do you care, or is this just another ho-hum moment in the ever-evolving intersection of PEDs and sports?
On Christmas weekend Al Jazeera America aired a documentary ominously titled "The Dark Side." The report claimed that a number of professional athletes in the NFL and MLB purchased human-growth-hormone (HGH) from the Guyer Institute, an Indianapolis anti-aging clinic. The information was based in part on the word of the apply-named Charlie Sly, a former intern at the clinic.
The biggest name mentioned in the report was Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a first ballot Hall of Famer who needs no introduction. Although the Al Jazeera documentary did not make any specific allegation that Manning used HGH, you could easily make that assumption if you watched the report or paid attention to the media coverage that followed. What Al Jazeera actually reported was that in 2011, the Guyer Institute shipped a package containing HGH to Manning's wife, Ashley. While Manning vehemently denied using HGH, he never denied the shipment to his wife. The documentary also stated that Manning was a patient of the Institute after undergoing back surgery in 2011 while he was a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
HGH was banned in the NFL by the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the League and the Players Association. However, because the sides could not agree on testing protocols, testing for the substance did not begin until 2014. Under the terms of the CBA violators of the policy are subject to a four-game suspension, but no player has ever tested positive for HGH. That's because the League currently uses an "isoform" test. Critics of the protocol, including Dr. Don Catlin, founder of the first anti-doping lab in the U.S. and long-time PED crusader, claim that isoform only works if a player is tested within a few hours of use. Beyond that time frame, the test is ineffective.
Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice-president of labor policy and governmental affairs, says the League would like to add a biomarker to testing this offseason. While that would greatly increase the likelihood that a player using HGH would be caught, the Players Association has yet to agree to such a test.
What exactly is HGH and why would athletes be attracted to it? Here's the layman's take. HGH is a hormone that increases strength and reduces body fat. What makes it most attractive to NFL players is it reportedly helps the body heal faster. If you've ever watched an NFL game - or game "highlights" - you can understand why players would be tempted to use the substance. It's also why both sides dragged their feet on banning HGH and then delayed testing for an additional three years. It behooves the League and the Players Association to keep players on the field.
Estimates of how many NFL players use HGH vary depending on the source. Former quarterback and current network color commentator Boomer Esiason was once quoted as saying that during his era (1984-97), 20 percent of the players used HGH. Bleacher Report polled a number of current players and their estimates ranged from 10 to 40 percent. Recently retired quarterback Brady Quinn estimated the number to be 40 to 50 percent.
Manning received support from a variety of sources, including the Broncos, the Colts and longtime rival Tom Brady. After observing the firestorm he initiated, Sly walked a number of his claims back, leading some to conclude he was lying. Who you choose to believe may depend on your view of PEDs in sports. But before you vilify the messenger, keep in mind that the list of PED whistleblowers that were ultimately vindicated doesn't include many choir boys.
Because HGH is banned in the NFL, anyone using is technically a cheater. But the list of scofflaws isn't limited to players. A number of studies have concluded that NFL team personnel dispense a potpourri of painkillers in violation of federal drug laws. Their sole purpose is to mask pain and keep players on the field, long term side effects be damned. Given that environment, should we condemn players who turn to HGH to aid in their recovery?
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at email@example.com.