NFL and players battle over growth hormone testing standard
With some linemen in the National Football League tipping the scales at 350 pounds, ESPN analyst and former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson says players need to embrace testing for human growth hormone and other banned performance enhancers, for a number of reasons.
"Performance-enhancing drugs [are] illegal, no matter what you call it," Johnson said at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. "Everybody should be on an even playing field. When you look at some of things in baseball, the steroid use, it's ridiculous."
The $10 billion NFL is a cash cow, enriching everyone from millionaire players and billionaire owners to television networks and corporate sponsors. It also may have secured its future last week when it agreed to pay $765 million in an out-of-court settlement of concussion-related lawsuits by 4,500 former players. Those suits were, arguably, the NFL's single-biggest business and public relations threat.
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So with America's richest, most popular sports organization ready to kick off its 2013 regular season this week, you would think both the NFL and the NFL Players Association would finally be ready to implement player testing for human growth hormone, or HGH, as envisioned under the 10-year collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011.
You would be wrong.
At press time, the two sides were trading blame rather than blood vials over HGH, a banned substance that is far harder to detect than steroids and has been linked to diabetes, cancerous tumors and shortened life expectancy.
Barring a successful Hail Mary pass in negotiations, testing probably won't be in place by Thursday night, when the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens take on the Denver Broncos. Spokesman Brian McCarthy said Tuesday that the NFL doesn't think the stalemate will end before then.
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NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said the union stands ready to start drawing blood from every single player as soon as the league signs off on a proposed population study to establish a baseline for HGH testing.
"Sign the letter and we can proceed with the blood drive," Atallah said.
Thursday's opener is not a hard and fast deadline. HGH testing could be implemented during the season, according to McCarthy, but given both sides' hard-line stance, testing may be delayed until 2014.
It's a dramatic turnaround from a month ago, when the league and players appeared poised to roll out HGH testing. But in recent weeks they clashed over whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or neutral arbitrators should decide player appeals in cases involving the law.
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Here's how it would work under the proposed agreement. Say a player tests positive for HGH or performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and is suspended by Goodell. The NFL made what it considers a major concession in agreeing to let third-party arbitrators hear his appeal.
But what if federal authorities bust a player for involvement in a PED ring or other violations of the law? The league wants the commissioner's office to retain its long-held authority over appeals in such cases rather than having arbitrators decide them.
Each side blames the other for the impasse, of course.
According to Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, the NFLPA has "buyer's remorse" and is trying to "renegotiate" a deal it already signed off on.
"The union knows that HGH testing is the right thing to do for our game, for its membership and for the millions of people who look to the NFL and NFL players to set the example for fair and exciting play," Birch said in a statement. "It is time for the NFLPA to stop the delay tactics, to move forward for the good of the game and players, and stop focusing on protecting people that break the law."
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Atallah countered that the league is dragging its feet. For almost a month, the NFL has had the signed letter from the union proposing the population study. But the league is more "interested in power" than getting HGH testing resolved.
"The 'buyer's remorse' issue is simply meant to divide our members," Atallah said.
Even Congress is getting fed up. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has publicly threatened intervention and has rebuked the union.
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"After two years of negotiations, the NFLPA is now holding HGH testing hostage because of matters wholly unrelated to testing," said Cummings in a statement. "Continuing to block HGH testing in this way essentially will force Congress to intervene, which nobody wants."
Although the NFL has escaped Major League Baseball's PED scandals, one thing MLB can boast is that it tests for human growth hormone.
"We are the only North American professional sports league currently testing for HGH," said MLB spokesman Michael Teevan.
MLB began blood-testing minor league players for HGH in July 2010 and expanded the program to big leaguers during spring training last year. In the current 2013 season, all MLB players are subject to random, unannounced blood tests for the substance.
Former New York Mets player Mike Jacobs became the first pro athlete in the U.S. to test positive for HGH while playing for a minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies in 2011. Blood testing for HGH was first used at the 2004 Summer Olympics Games, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The other major professional leagues want to test their players for HGH, but they also trail MLB.
David Stern, outgoing commissioner of the National Basketball Association, has been a strong supporter of testing, according to league spokesman Tim Frank. It has nothing in place yet, however.
Similarly, the National Hockey League and its players' association are "contemplating" HGH testing under the 10-year collective bargaining agreement signed this year, but there's nothing definite, according to league spokesman Jamey Horan.
So what's behind the holdup to HGH testing in the NFL?
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ESPN anchor Trey Wingo chalks it up to mutual distrust between Goodell and the 32 club owners he represents, and the NFLPA led by Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. Even though everyone knows HGH testing would be good for the game, they can't get past the hard feelings stemming from the 2011 player lockout.
"We thought that the [collective bargaining agreement] would provide labor peace and happiness between the union and the owners," Wingo said. "It seems to have done the exact opposite. There's still a lot of acrimony. ... And they will fight over every issue."
ESPN's Adam Schefter is one of the most well-informed NFL reporters around. He thinks HGH testing is dead in the water for now.
"It will not happen this season," he flatly predicted.
Cris Collinsworth, game analyst for NBC's "Sunday Night Football," is hopeful, however, and thinks the tide is finally turning inside player unions—whatever the outcome of the these negotiations.
"More and more players, whether it's baseball or football or whatever, are starting to say, 'You know, it's enough. OK, let's test this.' Do what you've got to do, but don't make me play against a guy who's 20 pounds stronger than I am because he's cheating."
Michael McCarthy covers Sports Business for Advertising Age in New York. He's been a sportswriter for USA TODAY, Newsday and SportsBizUSA. Follow him on Twitter @MMcCarthyREV.