Blood testing for human growth hormone is going nowhere fast in the NFL.
Everyone says they want it — so much so that it was included in the collective bargaining agreement struck between the league and players this summer. That, however, is where any agreement ends.
The odds of implementing tests this season dwindled as the union raised objections to detection methods and scientists dismissed those concerns as invalid.
Testing that was to be in place at the start of the season was delayed while the union tried to gather more information about a blood test that the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is responsible for the data, isn’t willing to provide.
Even if the program does get under way, the fact that the test in question can only detect HGH in a person’s system for about 24 hours means only the sloppiest of dopers would have the chance to get caught.
“Every test has some sort of politics,” said renowned anti-doping scientist Don Catlin, who runs his own lab in the Los Angeles area. “This is the same test they’ve been using all along. It’s not a great test because a great test has more longevity than 24 hours.”
Still, Catlin has no problem with using this particular method — because there’s nothing better out there — though he says WADA’s reluctance to turn over data on the seven-year-old test, or to have information about it published in peer-reviewed literature, “is a tough position to justify in this day and age.”
Promoted by both sides as a sign of their commitment to a drug-free game, blood testing for HGH made it into the new contract — but only if the union agreed to the methods. That hasn’t happened and no meetings are scheduled. Last week, Congress invited the NFL, union and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to Washington to discuss the issue, but that hasn’t been scheduled yet either.
The NFL said it wants to start the testing immediately and is satisfied with the validity of the test, which has been used at the Olympics since 2004. Even with its shortcomings, the league considers the test a good deterrent.
“I’m still hopeful that it can occur,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this week. “The testing is there.”
The union, however, wants more scientific information about the test so it can do its own analysis.
One of the key items the union wants to see is what’s known as a population study of the test — the data from the athletes who were used to originally set thresholds as to what constitutes a positive test. It wants to compare that data to a population study on football players, who the union believes could have naturally HGH levels, above those of other athletes. If a valid population st udy on football players doesn’t already exist, it could take months, maybe years, to produce.
“That’s a typical kind of excuse you would hear from a defense lawyer,” said WADA legal director Olivier Niggli. “We don’t think that’s true.”
Niggli said the test used by WADA sets the bar for cheating so high that there’s virtually no question an athlete who turns up positive — no matter the sport — is breaking the rules.
The union also wants to see the science behind a test that experts say is only expected to produce one false positive for every 10,000 samples taken.
“These are some certain, fundamental things we’re asking for that are not insane,” union spokesman George Atallah said. “The league says, ‘Let’s just get on with it.’ But maybe we take a closer look and we find out it’s not a good enough test for the Olympics, either.”
Players around the league have a multitude of questions, some even doubting the need for HGH testing.
“Where does it stop? What’s next?” Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. “Those are the questions I ask. I don’t think the NFL has been hit that hard with HGH problems, but maybe I just don’t know.”
WADA, meanwhile, is sticking with a long-held policy of not completely opening the books on its testing methods because, among other reasons, that could give dopers a blueprint on how to cheat the tests. People in anti-doping circles say plenty of literature has been published on the HGH test.
“It’s just flat wrong to say there’s no peer review papers on the … test,” said U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, who referred to the website www.pubmed.org as a resource for dozens of papers on HGH.
The vast majority of independent experts say the test used by WADA, which is considered the gold standard for doping testing, is highly reliable and has been reviewed sufficiently to be considered dependable.
“The duration of a positive test is very short. You could easily avoid testing positive if you stop it early enough,” said Gerry Baumann, who has studied HGH for three decades and is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities. “But in terms of the reliability of the test, I haven’t come across a problem along those lines. The false positive rate is one in 10,000. That’s pretty rigorous standard in my opinion.”
A different HGH test that has been in development for more than a decade is also ready for use, according to a number of scientists. But WADA has not yet approved that test, which detects HGH in a different way and also has a longer detection period. It has not been seriously discussed in the NFL-union negotiations.
At a meeting with the NFL and anti-doping experts in August, the union was represented by attorney Maurice Suh, who also handled the defense for Floyd Landis, the cyclist stripped of his 2006 Tour de France win after an arbitration panel found he had doped.
Suh’s strategy during that hearing was to cloud the issue by questioning nearly every scientific theory used by the anti-doping side and assailing their professionalism and their techniques. He ended his defense with a presentation called “Garbage in, garbage out,” replete with a graphic showing garbage cans moving across the screen — a ploy that drew some snickers in the hearing room but was not appreciated by the dozens of scientists who had spent much of their lives devoted to the work.
“If there’s an iota of a question, we shouldn’t move forward until that’s answered to our satisfaction,” Atallah said.
It’s more than just one question the players want answered.
Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell said players aren’t so much against testing but how the test is going to be conducted.
“That’s probably the biggest concern among the guys — how much you’re going to be tested,” Bell said. “I don’t think guys care about being tested for it. It’s just how often are you going to draw my blood, and how much do you need to draw?”
A normal test calls for 10 milliliters of blood — less than a tablespoon, and not enough to have any impact on a person’s strength or health. Under the NFL’s plan, players would be subject to random testing for HGH, in addition to annual checks — as is the case for all banned substances in the league’s anti-doping program.
As to the validity and accuracy of the test, scientists say there’s no such thing as 100 percent certainty in this field and the 99.99 percent accuracy rate the HGH test boasts is better than most tests, which is why it has been on the market for seven years.
“When you’ve got a false positive rate of 1 in 10,000, that’s about as good as you can ask for,” Baumann said. “It’s very much stacked in favor of not having any false positives.”