Philadelphia, PA – The headlines coming from nationally respected reporters earlier this week were bold and resolved.
The NFL and the Players Association were closer to HGH testing than ever before.
Yeah, not so fast.
The reality of the situation is far more nuanced and the only thing agreed to by the sides was a glorified stalling tactic, a population study designed to determine if there's basis for the union's contention that NFL players may have higher than normal HGH levels when compared to the general population.
In other words -- pump up the baseline for when a flawed test is finally implemented.
The NFL and the union, of course, first agreed to have players blood-tested for HGH as part of their 2011 labor deal. Since then the two sides have balked over the details of any testing program with the NFL backing WADA's (the politically-fueled World Anti-Doping Administration) dubious testing procedures, and the NFLPA bristling over the appeals process and insisting on the population study first, something the league had consistently deemed unnecessary.
Call this war junk science versus junk science with each opponent trying to trump the other with the disingenuous card.
Unmasking the facts in this issue isn't all that easy and why so many who should be asking substantive questions are just parroting the talking points from the side feeding them the information.
First a quick background lesson. Human growth hormone is a naturally occurring substance in the body but the synthetic version has been labeled a performance-enhancer by those in power. All agree synthetic HGH has been used by athletes for well over two decades to gain an advantage in performance.
Matt Chaney, a former college football player who authored the book, "Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football," explained why HGH is so popular among athletes.
"One reason is the drug's rapid rejuvenation of depleted muscles," Chaney, one of the foremost experts in the country regarding PEDs, said, "and many athletes believe HGH helps restore joints from wear and tear, even injury."
Over the past 10 years or so many anti-aging clinics have popped up around the country touting the benefits of growth hormone, and it's now used among many healthy individuals of means like Hollywood's elite. It also has many detractors, who point to its side effects like an increased risk of diabetes, glucose intolerance, carpal tunnel syndrome, joint pain, muscle pain, and even cancer from long-term use.
In 2007, Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report detailed numerous incidences of established growth hormone abuse among players going back to the late 1990s.
More recently, Canadian doctor Anthony Galea pleaded guilty to smuggling unapproved drugs, including human growth hormone, into the United States to treat professional athletes (including NFL players), while Biogenesis of America, a Miami-based anti-aging clinic suspected of supplying performance- enhancing substances, is currently under investigation by the MLB office, something which resulted in the high-profile suspension of former NL MVP Ryan Braun.
Testing for growth hormone in sport began with an isoforms-assay blood test, a highly-suspect method which has been used to detect the prohibited use of HGH on a limited basis since 2004 and on a world wide level since 2008.
There is little positive peer review for the isoforms test, however, and it has a terribly short detection window, one which critics say is less than a day, while WADA claims is up to 72 hours.
"Well, if you know the guy's going to shoot up this morning, and you arrive at noon, OK," Dr. Don Catlin, a former tester for Olympic and pro sports who operates the non-profit Anti-Doping Research laboratory in Los Angeles, once said when discussing the test.
"The GH-isoform has not had a truly independent examination, as the NFLPA rightly contends," Chaney added. "It's a research porker thus far, for its scant pieces of public literature that are basically authored and released by WADA engineers. Catlin, for one, has received nothing close to legitimate validation of the isoform, or documentation he's been promised by WADA officials for years, since the Athens Olympics (2004)."
A newer biomarker test unveiled by Dr. Peter Sonksen in London last year before the Olympic Games there (still think this stuff isn't political?) if far more promising and claims to spot HGH use for 21 days. Sonksen, meanwhile, has credibility because he has been both an associate and critic of WADA officials.
"The biomarker test looked good on paper, (but) once implemented I think the WADA scientists are skunked, unsure of what they have in results," Chaney said. "Subjectivity (and) interpretation of results is involved, and I think anti-doping committees are hitting hell trying to agree on whom to suspend. WADA scientists may be able to suspect an athlete through bio-marking, but they cannot verify much, as far as who's really doping with foreign substances, and they know that. I think they're generally skunked by blood- profiling data."
Penn State epidemiologist Charles E. Yesalis, another expert on sports doping, has always disliked WADA's free and easy approach to scientific protocol, along with its habit of implementing what he considers faulty approaches in punitive anti-doping.
"I'm just astounded," Yesalis said in February 2010 when NFL and MLB officials started talking favorably about WADA blood testing for growth hormone. "I mean, if you're going to ruin somebody's life, and if you don't have (vetted methodology) totally locked up, to me that is immoral and unethical. I'd rather see five million cheaters compete than see scientists bastardizing themselves."
Chaney also took aim at WADA:
"I think WADA specializes in public relations, not preventing doping and protecting athletes and fair play," he said. "Anyone who says WADA has successfully battled doping in the Olympics and others sports is moronic or, worse, deceitful. Performances of Olympic athletes continue to elevate through the roof, especially for the speed factor, with no reasonable explanation other than doping."
To this day scientific literature still lacks significant credible review on the WADA isoforms test, and serious questions remain regarding the biomarker one, yet the NFL's senior vice president of law and labor policy, Adolpho Birch, has rubber-stamped both.
"From our perspective, there are no significant detractions to its effectiveness or reliability," Birch said back in 2011. "We believe, like every other test we have ever used, we will be able to improve that (detection) time."
Sure, the NFL can improve on what scientists around the world can't.
Catlin remains a harsh skeptic of HGH tests in general and believes that calibrating a bio-marker system relies on setting an accurate GH baseline and other substance levels, something he sees no evidence of in any independent literature.
Simply put, at this stage HGH detection is a red-herring designed to throw off people who aren't well-versed on the subject.
"The isoform "test," of course, definitely shouldn't be in use for a democratic, free society," Chaney said. "To suspend a worker in America for this bogus method, branding him or her a "cheater" and denying a livelihood, would be unconscionable. I had held hope for the biomarker, for I like and respect Dr. Sonksen, but something's going wrong for that test too, once employed by WADA."
To the obtuse, the NFL and its players association are trying to ensure clean competition and a level playing field sort of like Superman was for truth, justice and the American way.
To the lucid, the groups are offering up a few unlucky sacrifices to the altar of "cheating" in hopes of moving forward unfettered.
And the end game isn't about protecting the shield, cleaning up the game or caring for its players, it's about winning a public relations war.
"I don't believe any test is credible, not yet, for turning back HGH use in an athlete population, especially a field of affluent, influential individuals such as NFL players and their support networks," Chaney concluded.