By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Football League's decision to test for human growth hormone (HGH) was applauded by anti-doping crusaders on Friday for putting pressure on other North American professional leagues to step up their drug-testing efforts.
In ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement on Thursday, the NFL became the first major U.S. professional sports league to use blood testing for HGH, bringing the league closer to international standards.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) welcomed the news.
"The NFL collective agreement that allows for HGH testing of their players is a positive development in the fight against doping in sport," WADA director general David Howman told Reuters.
"It is vital that HGH testing is increased and the NFL's example will hopefully encourage other sports federations to follow suit."
While the NFL provided few details about their testing procedures, the decision to start testing was regarded as a major breakthrough given that North American sports have traditionally been reluctant to embrace doping tests and impose punishments.
Last year, Major League Baseball (MLB) implemented random blood testing for HGH in the minor leagues, but has yet to introduce it at the major league level.
Tougher drug-testing was also on the agenda in the ongoing talks between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and their players association over a new collective bargaining agreement while the National Hockey League (NHL) has had meetings with WADA about beefing up its testing, which will also be part of its next contract negotiations.
Former-WADA boss Dick Pound, who had a long running battle with the commissioners of the big four North American leagues, also viewed NFL testing for HGH as a positive development.
But he said he wanted to wait and see how it was applied, and whether it included random, unannounced out-of-competition testing, before giving it his full stamp of approval.
"It's progress," Pound told Reuters. "I haven't seen anything that tells you how it will get organized or applied but it is a step forward.
"But it's one of these things where you can have the program and say, 'OK now we're testing for HGH we're the leaders in professional sport'".
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) also praised the NFL for testing for HGH but was disappointed anti-doping concerns were among the last issues considered in the collective bargaining process.
The bulk of the deal to end the NFL's bitter labor dispute was agreed to last month, but certain elements, including drug-testing, were ironed out just before the agreement was ratified.
"It's an issue that is tacked on at the end after all the money issues are resolved...but it is a step in the right direction," USADA chief executive Travis Tygart told Reuters.
"In certain sports, the standards fall well short of what is in the WADA Code but I think, to the NFL and Major League Baseball's credit, they have paid attention to these issues and attempted to get close to the core parts of the WADA Code.
"They are still not WADA Code but they are getting closer."
(Editing by Julian Linden)