Testing for HGH could eventually come to the forefront of NFL labor negotiations

There is a substance athletes can take that might add years to their careers, give them more explosiveness and make injuries easier to overcome.

That substance is banned by the NFL, but there is virtually no chance of violators being caught.

The substance is human growth hormone, or HGH, said to have as many, or greater, benefits as traditional steroids. Though HGH is banned by the NFL, the league doesn't test for it because tests have been mostly ineffective.

But scientists believe they've developed an accurate blood test for HGH, a development that could be another topic of fierce debate in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Changes to the NFL's drug-testing policies will likely have to be collectively bargained.

"Usually it becomes a bargaining chip, and you definitely don't like to see that," said Don Catlin, a pioneer of the anti-doping movement who founded the group Anti-Doping Research to champion the cause. "But in Major League Baseball and the NFL, they are unionized sports, and that's something you just have to accept."

The issue will come to the forefront in the NFL's labor negotiations at some point, if commissioner Roger Goodell gets his way. Goodell continues to insist that the sides have earnest discussions about adding HGH testing.

Goodell says he has confidence in the improved blood testing now available and used by the International Olympic Committee and a handful of leagues around the world, including the Canadian Football League and baseball's minor leagues.

The likelihood of NFL players agreeing to an additional layer of testing is probably minimal. But depending on where this issue ranks in importance to the league, it's possible Goodell could make a considerable push for it.

"We'd be naive to think that people aren't trying to cheat the system," he said in April. "But we have to have the best testing program to be able to offset that.

"Making changes to our program is critical, and we have done that over the years. We need to do more, including the inclusion of HGH testing."

Most agree with Goodell on one point: Some players are probably using HGH.

"I don't think it's prevalent, but I also don't think marijuana use in the NFL is prevalent," said renowned trainer Tom Shaw, a former strength coach for the Patriots and a staunch opponent of performance-enhancing drugs.

"But are there guys using it? Yes."

"Being in the locker room, I never saw or heard anything," said Anthony Becht, a tight end who has played 10 seasons, including three with the Bucs. "But with HGH, or any product — anything that will give players an edge (when) they don't have any reason to worry about getting caught — it would be silly to think people wouldn't pursue it."

Still, players seem lukewarm to the idea of having to submit to blood tests to find what some think is a relatively small number of cheaters.

"I don't have any feelings on it because it doesn't pertain to me," Bucs fullback Earnest Graham said. "Guys who do it, well, they just do it. For the guys who don't … it's a thing where you have to look in the mirror."

The players association has renounced its union status as part of the almost three-month lockout and declined to comment on labor-related issues.

But the union has historically been against expansion of testing for narcotics and performance-enhancing drugs, citing concerns about player rights, privacy and, in the case of HGH, the need for drawing blood. All testing conducted by the NFL is done through urine samples, which aren't useful in detecting HGH.

Another concern is lack of confidence in the science. The union hasn't expressed satisfaction with the accuracy of HGH testing methods because they are fairly new and have been imperfect. The tests detect only very recent usage of HGH because the drug leaves the body quickly.

Catlin said there should not be concerns about accuracy.

"I think we're past that," he said. "The test continues to be improved. Sport has really longed for a test. We finally got one."

As for the objections by players to having blood drawn, Catlin scoffed.

"It's not reasonable," he said. "Doctors draw blood all the time, and no one gets hurt."

Another concern expressed by players: What's next?

"There's always going to be a scientist who's going to come up with something new, and then they'll be testing for that," Becht said.

Becht said he prefers not to obsess over performance-enhancing drugs because doing so takes away from the overwhelming number of players who excel through hard work.

"I think it takes away from the work ethic that a lot of guys put in. I don't think it cheapens the sport because it's an individual decision," he said.

"I was always a guy who wasn't the fastest or strongest, but I prided myself in doing things the right way. … At the end of the day, it comes down to the individual."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Testing for HGH could eventually come to the forefront of NFL labor negotiations 06/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 10:07pm]

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