Congress to investigate NFL doping

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform takes up human growth hormone use by football players

By Alex Halperin

Published December 12, 2012 2:08PM (EST)

Athletic doping is a bipartisan issue. Politicians from both parties apparently agree that grandstanding about performance enhancing drugs is a good use of resources. In recent years, substance abuse scandals have swirled around baseball and cycling. Now it’s the NFL’s turn to pee into the proverbial cup.

Today the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is supposed to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, is holding a hearing on the science of human growth hormone testing. HGH has been touted as a way to generate muscle mass and stave off aging, it is of dubious athletic benefit (see Page 3 among other sources) and carries the risk of side effects. Despite this, the players' union isn't convinced that the test works.

The AP reports:

Back in August 2011, the NFL and the players' union signed off on a new labor deal that set the stage for the league to test for human growth hormone, perhaps as soon as a month later.

Nearly two full seasons now have gone by and nothing's happened.

The NFL Players Association won't concede the validity of a test that's used by Olympic sports and Major League Baseball, and the sides haven't been able to agree on a scientist to help resolve that impasse.

In a preliminary statement, Chairman Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., concedes that federal legislation on this issue is “unlikely.” However, he explains why it matters if a small number of elite adult athletes partake in an off-label use of HGH.

The fact of the matter is that the lack of a testing regime in the NFL for Human Growth Hormone – or HGH – is a public health concern.  It affects not just the health and safety of NFL players, but more importantly endangers young athletes who admire and often try to emulate them…HGH has no place in America’s most popular sport.

In other words, it's The Children. The AP quotes the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D.-Md., framing the issue more as a matter of honor:

The players are claiming that the testing is questionable. What's bothering me about all of this is that the players made an agreement in 2011 ... that they would begin the human growth hormone testing, and it seems to me that they have thrown roadblocks and found excuses not to do it.

Neither the league nor the players' union were invited to share their views with Congress this time, but in the prepared testimonies, representatives from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency assert that the HGH test is medically valid. Despite this, the AP story suggests that the league is also happy to punt on this one. This short statement from an NFL executive is a master class in leaving oneself room to maneuver.

“NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch, who oversees the league's drug program, said the sport has been "trying to do whatever needed to be done to advance the ball" on HGH testing."

"I am hopeful because, among other things, the hearing presumably will put to rest the questions of whether the test is safe, practical, reliable and appropriate for NFL players," Birch said. "If that occurs, it may present an opportunity for the parties to resume serious discussions on how to implement it, rather than being sort of lost in the trenches discussing the questions about its reliability."

Oh well. At least this is probably a better use of the committee’s time than the Obama administration’s spending on state dinners, its “None of the Below” energy strategy and the never ending topics of Fast and Furious and Benghazi.

Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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