By Gene Cherry

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - The National Football League (NFL) expects to have its new human growth hormone (HGH) testing program in operation by the first game of the season, a key league official said on Tuesday.

Players would be subject to multiple tests year-round without notice under the program, which is being fine-tuned in talks between the league and players union, Adolpho Birch, NFL senior vice president of law and labor policy who will oversee the program, told a teleconference.

League owners and players agreed to the testing as part of the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement.

It would make the league the first major U.S. professional sport to use blood testing for HGH.

"There is every possibility it will be implemented by the first game of this season because that is what the parties have committed to," Birch said.

The league opens its regular season on September 8. Pre-season contests start on Thursday.

"We have a strong confidence that the testing program, as we have designed it, will sufficiently deter use, but also has a reasonable opportunity to detect the use of those who choose to do it," Birch said.

There are no valid statistics on what percentage of players use the banned substance, but media reports have speculated 10 to 20 percent of the league's players have tried it.

Birch said he did not believe it was that prevalent.


Testing would be on a random basis.

All or some portion of NFL players would be subject to the test during pre-season with testing done weekly during the regular and post-season.

There could even be game-day testing, something the NFL has shied away from previously because of logistical issues.

The only limitation on the number of times a player could be tested would be in the off-season when the maximum would be six.

The off-season runs from February through the start of training camp.

"If a person was particularly lucky or unlucky it could be 22-23 times (a year)," Birch said.

"I don't suspect it will be that much but given the number of test dates that we will have, I would certainly expect our players will be tested in an amount that would be meaningful."

(Editing by Ken Ferris)