Thursday, February 25, 2010
That grinding sound you're hearing in the far political distance is the sound of two unions digging in their heels against the next wave of drug testing, triggered this week by the news that a British rugby player tested positive for Human Growth Hormone, something previously thought to be merely impossible.
Among the many dubious benefits of HGH, the one that baseball players such as Andy Pettitte and Jason Grimsley and doubtless some football players seemed to like best was that it was undetectable. Olympic athletes have been screened for HGH for most of this century without anyone coming up positive, and since the plausibility that no Olympic athletes -- none -- in all that time were using HGH is so implausible as to be laughable, the assumption was that the tests simply didn't work.
Enter Terry Newton.
In November, Newton provided a blood sample that this week got him banned from English rugby for two years by the United Kingdom Anti-Doping Agency, thus violating one of the sport's cardinal rules -- illegal substances should be restricted to the hooligans.
"It doesn't wash," Chuck Yesalis said on the phone from State College Wednesday. "I mean I'm skeptical. They've said in public for at least six years, if not 10, that they have this test, and this is all they've got? One person? A rugby player? That's not like catching some big fish. I want to see it challenged in court. I want people to talk about it.
"I'm an epidemiologist, not a biochemist, but this is not a black or white thing. It's like the testosterone ratio thing -- what's normal, what's not normal. It's not a big line in the sand."
Yesalis, professor emeritus of exercise and sport science and one of the world's leading anti-doping experts, remains reliably if amiably cantankerous not only on where the lines are drawn, but on the interminable doping question of who's fooling whom.
Still, if there is no line in the sand, there will be a thick line not easily crossed in the offices of the Major League Players Association and the National Football League Players Association, especially after management spokespersons leaped into the media pool at the first mention of Newton's positive test.
Someone in Bud Selig's office immediately told the New York Times that baseball would test its minor leaguers for HGH as soon as this summer, with an eye toward implementing testing on the major league level in the next round of collective bargaining. The union said it would consult its experts on the matter, and you have to wonder if these will be the same experts who advised players to resist urine testing for steroids until the game's very integrity was in the urinal.
The NFL, where it's obvious no one is using HGH because offensive linemen average only 315 pounds, greeted the positive HGH test with equal enthusiasm, but its union kicked back pretty hard.
"There is no reason to forcefully implement any blood testing at this time," NFLPA spokesman George Atallah told the Washington Post. "There is no reason to believe a blood test for NFL players will or should be implemented."
That's a matter for collective bargaining as well, and likely to complicate an already dismal labor forecast beyond 2010.
Neither union, obviously, has learned a thing from baseball's experience. Obviously, privacy issues have to be weighed heavily when it comes to testing, but, in the current climate, where suspensions for steroids and HGH are an annual occurrence and suspicion is a malignant constant, the prudent public posture isn't, "Oh no you don't!"
That said, Newton's test probably clears up little.
"All of us who have helped develop the test wouldn't put it in place if it wasn't forensically sound and reliable," the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's Travis Tygart contended in news accounts Tuesday. "Particularly in Newton's case; it's proof positive the test works."
I'd love to believe that, just as I'd love to believe that baseballers and footballers would, as a sincere gesture to the fans who make their opulent lifestyles possible, embrace any testing that makes the games 100 percent believable again.
Yet I defer to Yesalis, who until he retired a few years ago, taught a generation of students and reminded a good portion of the nation's sports media that skepticism never atrophies. From Yesalis we all learned that the cheaters are constantly accelerating the game faster than the testers.
"I see no reason whatsoever to change my mind on it," he said Wednesday. "Collectively, there's way more money involved to help circumvent the tests than the amount of money available to catch the cheaters. Look at all these multi-gazillion-dollar athletes and these sports federations, all with a strong, vested interest in being bigger, faster, stronger, and compare it to the paltry couple of million to develop new tests.
"Does this [Newton positive] really change things? If I had to bet my house, all I could do is use the past to predict the future. I have heard for 30 years stuff like, 'We had a problem with drugs in this sport, but now it's solved.' Thirty years. If it's a roulette wheel and you're asking me to put my bet on the drug cheaters or the drug testers, I know what to do."
First published on February 25, 2010 at 12:00 am