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Owners make the right call in demanding HGH testing

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Posted April 20, 2011 @ 2:29 p.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

Finally, the suits at NFL headquarters have come to their senses.

After weeks of arguing for an extended regular season and a higher percentage of league revenues, issues that forced the sport into a game played in a courthouse instead of on the field, the league has at last proposed something that shouldn't be scoffed at by the players or the fans. It has nothing to do with money and everything to do with what players are asking for: making the sport safer.

The proposal is for mandatory testing for human growth hormone, a product that has been illegal in the NFL since 1991. Players would be subjected to a regular blood test, as the substance cannot be traced through any other type of testing. With no test currently on the books, players are only subject to discipline by the NFL if they are caught using HGH through other means. League management wants this done to ensure no players are gaining an unfair advantage, as HGH can help the body rehabilitate from injury faster than normal and can increase muscle mass. There are also negative side effects, such as increased joint pain and an increased risk of diabetes, even more reason players should support the proposal.

In a conference call discussing health and safety in the league, NFL senior V.P. of law and labor policy Adolpho Birch explained that there are multiple reasons why testing is important, starting with protecting the players. Football is a physical game, and as the players have become bigger, faster and stronger, injury rates have risen. HGH makes the sport even more dangerous by giving those who use it increased power.  

"It's necessary for us to have a level playing field so that there is competitive integrity within our game so that we can help protect the health and safety of our players," Birch said. "We have proposed testing before. There were some concerns over the reliability and validity of the test over the most recent years. However, we are firmly of the belief that those concerns have been addressed. It has now been used in the top labs for years now, it has withstood legal challenges on appeal."

The main objection to HGH testing in past NFL labor negotiations is that players don't want to have blood drawn. The late NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw was completely opposed to the idea, famously saying in 2008, "We've got a lot of big tough guys, but even they don't like to be pricked on the finger to give blood." That explanation doesn't hold any merit, especially since Birch and commissioner Roger Goodell have to take the same tests.

"As a factual matter, we were both tested recently with both blood and urine and the blood test was really nothing to remark about, and I am not one to care for needles," Birch said. "But we were able to do it without any sort of problems. It's a tablespoon of blood, we're not talking about quarts or pints."

Travis T. Tygart, the CEO of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told PFW that it's ridiculous for players to object to the blood test. Never mind that they are already putting their bodies through the wear and tear of a physically demanding sport for three hours at a time, but that many of them undergo a blood test when signing contracts and undergoing physicals.

"It's basic," Tygart said of the testing that players will undergo. "It's an excuse not do it, because they get blood tested all the time anyways. It's a lame excuse not to support clean sports and an even playing field."

Both Birch and Tygart also mentioned another great reason to enforce HGH testing in the NFL: It sends a message to athletes of all ages that cheating is not acceptable. Despite the current lockout, professional football is going to be the most popular sport in the country this fall if the games go on as scheduled, with TV ratings and attendance figures that make every other professional sports league jealous. More kids than ever are growing up hoping to be the next Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson, and the NFL promotes the game to America's youth with its "Play 60" ad campaign. If kids in pee-wee football all the way up to blue-chip high schoolers see that their heroes can get away with using performance enhancers, they are more likely to try to gain an advantage doing the same.

"We need (HGH testing) in order to ensure our game has the confidence of the public as fair and legitimate. And that our players are comfortable that they have a legitimate opportunity to succeed and don't feel the pressure to cheat," Birch said.

"That, along with understanding the trickle-down effect and the fact that our players are being tested for it and understand that it cheats the competitive integrity of the sport will have a lot of ramifications for youth and young athletes around the country and around the world as well."

Tygart added, "You have to lead from the top. If kids think they need to use HGH to succeed, and it will be untested, they'll do it. High schoolers, even kids younger, are going to try and emulate everything their role models do. It's a culture of where if you're not using it, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage. Athletics is their ticket to scholarships, to multimillion dollar contracts. And even though such a small percentage of kids will make it to the professional level, every 12-year-old thinks they can do it. If they see one of their peers gaining an advantage and they know there is no way they'll be caught, they'll use it too."

Ever since the labor negotiations began, the league's players have been asking the owners to take safety into account. With the proposal of mandatory HGH testing, the owners have done just that. Now it's time for the players to come to their senses as well.

 

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