Opinion

Drowning in alphabet soups

byClark Booth
8/26/2011

There are those of us who will believe it when we see it. But the National Football League, inspired by a late-blooming enthusiasm for cleaning up its act, declares it will conduct "random game-day drug testing" including unprecedented pre-game screening for HGH violations. The process begins the first Sunday of the regular season.

So, the almighty sporting behemoth that treated the explosive performance enhancement issue with benign indifference for three decades comes in from the cold and suddenly gets religion on the delicate matter. Essential details for the new policy were agreed upon in the recently negotiated labor pact although the players association insists key particulars, including an appeals process, still need to be ironed out.

If seriously conducted and sustained -- and where the NFL is concerned you need to worry about that -- this could be an historic breakthrough in the long, bitter battle to clean up sports. The NFL's prestige is immense. The league could flip-flop from the foremost foe of reform to its leading apostle overnight. That would be quite remarkable.

Cynics, however, see little that is noble in this so very sudden conversion and believe it to have been more a matter of the NFL moguls recognizing they needed to preempt potential disaster, and had better do so quickly. It's a matter that had greatly worried Commissioner Roger Goodell and his game's more enlightened folks.

While other games -- baseball in particular -- were getting hammered, football was getting a free pass. The double-standard had become outrageous. Congress which brought MLB to its knees had been fuming about the NFL. If the labor dispute had persisted the fun kids on Capitol Hill, who are in some need of grandstanding points, might have picked the drug issue as a club to make the football owners squirm for their perceived arrogance. Goodell understood that the artful dodging days were over.

Last year the NFL claims to have conducted roughly 14,000 tests for drugs, steroids, and other such enhancement abuses. But if they netted any meaningful offenders it was a secret they kept to themselves. Even the more addled fans were beginning to wonder whom the NFL might think they were kidding with the ranks of those who bought their pious protestations being confined to those who also believe in the tooth fairy.

Has a new day really dawned? Key details about the new policy remain murky. Given the NFL's track record, we should wait until the program gets rolling before assuming anything. If they casually test one team a week, it would obviously be a farce. But it's still only August so it's easy for them to grandly proclaim the tests will be bold, devilishly random, lightning swift, intensely enforced, and year-round. It does sound terrific. But being from Missouri, where this stuff is concerned we choose to wait and see.

As proposed, the most dramatic feature of the program will be the unprecedented testing for human growth hormone abuses, and such tests are promised to be up-front and pro-active. No major league sporting consortium has any such initiative. Major League Baseball tests only minor leaguers who have no union protection. The NFL says all its standard testing will include the administering of blood tests to screen for HGH. There will be no exceptions.

As if to curb the discussion before it has really begun, an important NFL official has already declared the league's confidence that the HGH issue is minor. "I don't believe it is prevalent," said Adolpho Birch, the NFL's VP in charge of testing, etc. But a star receiver playing for Indianapolis thinks "more than 100" NFL players might have been doing HGH.

"Around the League, you see guys on Sunday and things don't add up, they don't look right," the Colts Anthony Gonzalez told USA Today. "I see guys I saw in college and now that they are in the NFL and they look totally different."

With HGH's developing importance in the PED wars the NFL's fairly radical new policy is genuinely important, but it edges into murky areas as yet undefined. It's a hugely complex issue and whenever a sports columnist gets into discussing matters of such gravitas and profundity he is de facto in over his head. So I'll avoid that.

But it should be noted that there has been legitimate doubt about the efficacy of HGH testing. The NFL says it's confident it now knows how to do it right. MLB seems unsure.

Even more importantly, there is legitimate concern about whether the use of HGH should be rightly classified as a drug or performance enhancing abuse. Trying to heal a wound with HGH interventions is not the same as mindlessly bulking up on steroids with malice indisputably intended, critics maintain. They say HGH treatment is often (not always) a reasonable medical alternative not unlike (for example) transplants (i.e. Tommy John surgery) and therefore should not be classified as any kind of contrived or artificial "enhancement," let alone "cheating." But none of that means the potential for the manipulation and misuse of HGH technology is not a clear and present danger. Is there a chance there is "good HGH" and "bad HGH" or that some procedures are acceptable while others ought not be?

Much more needs to be known. As noted, it's complicated. Maybe the argument is out of my league. But further inquiry seems to this uninformed observer to be no less honest and entirely necessary.

In short, I would not bury some poor slob on the grounds of alleged, poorly conceived, HGH transgression done out of dumbness or desperation; at least not until all the scientific evidence has been sifted and probed and contested and ultimately affirmed or denied. Is that not what the scientific method is all about, by the way?

Ah, but we already have a "poor slob" who is very much on the griddle. The mysterious case of Mike Jacobs seems to have added to MLB's anxiety on the matter, while further justifying its ambivalence.

Jacobs, a former big-leaguer trying to revive his career in the high minors, got nailed last week for HGH indiscretions and suspended for 50 games. No obscure bush-leaguer, Jacobs was once a major prospect who has spent six seasons in the majors, hitting 32 homers for the Marlins just three seasons ago. He was excelling in his comeback efforts in the Rockies' farm system and had been the Triple-A Colorado Springs team's leading slugger when chronic back and knee woes recurred; driving him to the unfortunate conclusion that HGH was the answer.

Jacobs is the perfect example of the misguided HGH transgressor; a kid who has had a taste of fame and fortune and is driven to desperation in his effort to get back on the gravy train. But there seems to me a helluva difference between an athlete who takes HGH to get healthy and an athlete who does steroids to get wealthy.

Jacobs becomes the first North American jock to get punished for HGH violations. A British rugby player who later committed suicide and a German cyclist were earlier banned. Jacobs was contrite but with nary a blink the Rockies promptly dumped him. What do you want to bet we never hear of him again?

HGH -- as the Globe's Nick Cafardo recently and correctly noted -- is the new PED battleground and it says here that it's a much more slippery slope than steroids and all the other "stuff." The NHL intends to go after HGH in hockey's next contract hassle and MLB is sure to do so when the owners go back to the table with the MLBPA, which is all too soon.

As a backdrop to all this, we have the Roger Clemens' court case about to resume, although there's the chance that the mistrial declared last month will prove to have ended that fiasco. How would such a development reshape the entire discussion about PED problems in sport? A ruling is expected soon after Labor Day.

Who says the subject of sport is all about what happens on the field, the court, the ring, or the rink? Quoth the raven, "No more!"