Editorial: Why is NFL union fighting HGH testing?
And how are football players getting so supersized?
USA Today 12/28/12
The Editorial Board
In 1970, Gene Ferguson of the San Diego Chargers had a unique distinction: He was the only 300-pounder in the NFL. In the 1980s, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, at 340 pounds, was still a rarity. This weekend, in the NFL’s final regular season games, Perry-size linemen will be all over the field. More than 350 players tip the scales at 300 pounds or more.
Watch the bowl games, and you’ll see that college players have grown, too, with scores of them packing on 30 pounds — and some as much as 80 pounds — in a single year, according to a recent Associated Press investigation.
It’s possible that all these behemoths are just eating their Wheaties. It’s also possible some are getting help from illegal human growth hormone (HGH).
The only way to find out for sure is to test for it. The NFL appeared on the brink of doing just that in August 2011, when the league and the players’ union agreed to a modest testing program in their new contract.
Now, nearly 18 months later, that plan looks more like a tease. The NFL Players Association has thrown up obstacles, insisting that the current test — already used on thousands of Olympians — might be unreliable. The union also wants a “population study” to determine whether size would affect test outcomes.
If this stall sounds familiar, it’s because it is. In the 1990s, Major League Baseball and its players’ union ignored the obvious signs that some of its biggest stars were using steroids, then the drug of choice for cheaters. As players aged, they grew not only bigger but also stronger, a suspicious combination. Barry Bonds’ head size even enlarged.
Today, the evidence in football seems just as obvious to those willing to look. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez said he suspects HGH use: “I see guys I saw in college; now they’re in the NFL, and they look totally different,” he told TheIndianapolis Star last year.
Stalling is particularly unseemly for the union, whose greatest concern ought to be protecting the safety of its members. Nor should any player feel he has to cheat to compete.
Whenever a player uses HGH, he is jeopardizing his own health and, indirectly, the health of others. Beyond the hype that HGH increases muscle mass, speeds the healing of injuries and boosts the effect of steroids, there are dangerous side effects: diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal bone growth, to mention a few. Carrying around 300-plus pounds isn’t good, either.
Supersized players make for more vicious collisions, increasing the risk of long-term injuries, including concussions.
The game’s integrity is at stake, too, as baseball learned the hard way. When its steroid era finally ended, baseball was left with tarnished stars and once-hallowed records that had been broken by a bunch of cheaters. The taint is alive today, as steroid-era stars become eligible for baseball’s Hall of Fame.
There’s also this: Behavior by the pros trickles down to the college players, and to younger boys seeking to emulate their idols. Boys with NFL ambitions couldn’t miss the fact that NFL and big-time college linemen are giants. It’s hard to avoid suspicions that steroids or harder-to-detect HGH helped them get that way.
The NFL has been testing for steroids and other illegal drugs for years, but HGH, a newer drug that is illegal in the U.S. without a prescription, presents a special challenge.
HGH detection requires a blood test, more invasive than the urine tests used to detect other drugs. Setting the threshold that triggers a positive finding isn’t simple, giving the union’s qualms some legitimacy. But its arguments have become less convincing as time goes by.
Nearly 13,000 athletes have been tested around the world. Eleven have failed. Eight have acknowledged the results are accurate. With just three athletes contesting the results, the risk of false positives appears low.
If union leaders had so many reservations 18 months ago, they shouldn’t have agreed “in principle” to the tests. But they did. Now it’s time to live up to their word.