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Not In "The Clear": A Pessimistic Look At The NFL's New HGH-Testing Policy

Going through the airport a few weeks ago, I saw the single most asinine example of post-9/11 airport security: the pilot was required to remove his shoes and send his bag through the X-ray machine.  That's right --- TSA wanted to make sure that the guy who was flying the plane wasn't carrying any explosives.  The absurdity of this was palpable to anyone not employed by TSA.

While that's far and away the dumbest example, however, it just serves to underline the bigger point, which is that much of the heightened security is illusory.  Making me (or anyone) take off his shoes only makes sense if you assume that another terrorist will try to use a shoe-bomb.  The safety net only catches someone dumb enough to try something that has already been tried and has failed.

I mention this because I had the same sort of reaction the articles about the HGH-testing policy contained in the new CBA: it lessens the use of PEDs in the NFL the way not letting me take a coffee through security lessens future terrorist attacks.  If you'll step through the full-body-scanning jump machine, I'll explain.

Most drug testing, both steroid and narcotic, that is done in sports involves someone peeing in a cup.  The urine is then screened for trace amounts of certain drugs and specific metabolites of others (for example, the THC in marijuana metabolizes into 31 different chemicals, the most common of which is THCA).  In a properly controlled lab environment, a second test is done to verify any positive tests in order to reduce the risk of false-positives or contamination.

Testing for human growth hormone, however, is done via blood samples.  However, because HGH levels vary from day to day (or even hour to hour), more than one sample is usually taken a few days apart.  The blood samples are then checked for the nanograms of HGH per milliliter of blood.  Because HGH is naturally occurring in the body, the ng/ml of the testee is checked against a baseline, "normal" amount.  (Aside: frequently a test for Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) is done concurrent with the HGH tests, both because IGF-1 fluctuates less and because the IGF-1 level can help determine if a heightened HGH level is the result of, say, certain pituitary tumors.)

Here's the thing, though: the most accurate HGH test that is currently FDA-approved can only detect artificially heightened HGH levels inside a window of about 36-48 hours from the last injection of HGH.  Meaning that players can get around the random game-day testing by taking their last injection Thursday night.  Someone on a fairly standard 3x/week injection schedule could inject Sunday evening after the game, Tuesday evening, and Thursday evening.  On that schedule, random tests given during typical hours on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, or Sunday would likely not trigger a positive test.

Now, if the only flaw in this plan were the 57% chance that an HGH-user would test clean, it wouldn't be that bad.  Catching people 43% of the time would be better than 0%, right?  Sure.  But therein lies the bigger flaw (and the closer analog to my airport analogy): HGH testing is only going to catch people who are using HGH, but HGH is not the only (or, likely, even the most common) PED these days.

Let me back up.  Remember BALCO?  Remember "The Cream" and "The Clear'?  "The Clear" is tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a designer steroid that at one time, on a mg per mg basis, was more potent than any other anabolic steroid available and had no estrogenic effect (i.e. no "bitch tits").  Designer steroids such as THG are created by modifying the molecular structure of a more common drug in order to make the new product have fewer side-effect, be more potent, be invisible to testing, or some combination of the three.  When used with "The Cream," an ointment that kept the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in balance to prevent that imbalance from triggering suspicion after a test, "The Clear" was literally invisible to traditional testing.  It wasn't until 2003, when a U.S. sprint coach gave a used syringe containing traces of the drug to the US Anti-Doping Agency, that anyone was able to start working on a test for THG.  Given that Marion Jones admitted to using it prior to the 2000 Olympics, one can only wonder how long the drug was in use prior to being detectable.

So, it's not like cutting out 100% of the HGH use in the NFL would mean that you have taken care of PEDs in the sport.  After all, it's not like THG is the only previously undetectable designer steroid we've encountered in sports.  Prior to THG, there was norbolethone, which was less effective but also undetectable until 2002.  If we've heard of (and sports have become able to test for) these two drugs, how many more similar products do you think are out there right now?  It's just like any other form of technology where secrecy is a virtue --- for every one you know about, you can safely assume there are others that you've never heard of.  Plus, if HGH became too risky from an NFL-testing standpoint, how many more chemists would see a market for undetectable products?

Beyond even designer steroids, you have all sorts of cutting-edge stuff that is either being used currently in certain circles or will be used in the near future.  For instance:

  • Myostatin inhibitors.  Myostatin (growth differentiation factor 8) is a protein that inhibits muscle growth.  By stopping the production of myostatin or stopping the body's uptake of it, significantly more muscle mass is possible.
  • Gene doping.  Similar in some ways to the myostating inhibitors, this is the application of foreign genes or genetic elements to improve athletic performance by, say, increasing stamina, muscle mass, or the like.

Neither of these is widely used ... yet.  But you can't honestly believe that research into them and people willing to try them would not ramp up if HGH-testing were suddenly hyper-successful in the NFL.  No test exists for either, and, depending on the genetic changes, it's possible that no test could ever be developed for some genetic doping methods.

Look, the point of all this is not to say that the NFL should or should not be testing for HGH.  That's a different discussion.  Rather, the point is two-fold.  One, that it is silly to think that HGH-testing is some sort of panacea, considering its limitations.  Two, just like with the shoes in the airport, catching some players using HGH (at best) only prevents other players from trying to cheat by using HGH.  It does not remove the impetus to enhance one's performance, nor does it do anything to prevent players from trying other methods.  (Cf. The Christmas Day underwear bomber.)