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Wednesday, August 31, 2011
NFL needs to show the way

By Jane McManus

Someday, there may be a professional football league that allows players to inject each other with HGH, steroids and uranium-235. Where surgically attached wings are a running back's asset on fourth-and-1. Where games end when an offensive lineman explodes in a sustained nuclear reaction.

But it won't be the NFL.

The league and the players agreed to add human growth hormone to its testing battery, sending the message that football will remain authentic. In the sleep-deprived haze of free agency, training camp and preseason games, the game-day blood test could be overlooked by fans.

But it shouldn't be.

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), HGH is a naturally produced hormone that stimulates muscle production and has a performance-enhancing effect, especially when combined with steroids. There are side effects, including possible shortened life span.

The NFL and NFLPA are still wrangling over exactly how the league's testing will proceed, yet they have received encouragement from several members of Congress, including Rep. Mary Bono Mack from California.

"The new NFL drug policy will serve as an important example to those young people who seek to emulate their gridiron heroes," Mack said, "and send an important message about playing and competing in a fair and clean manner."

Some players weren't enthusiastic about this. And you can see why -- providing test samples on Sunday isn't what Vince Lombardi was thinking about in terms of mental preparation. It's invasive and obnoxious, but utterly necessary given the biological arms race that is professional sports.

Although the NFL's Adolpho Birch thankfully doesn't use the word "youngsters" in this quote, he addresses why the league won't ignore performance-enhancing drugs going forward.

"This was a critical step in the evolution of our policy, and I think both parties -- particularly the union -- should be commended for taking that step to ensure our game remains to the public and to our players as an area for clean competition, that it protects the health and safety of our players and sends the right message to youth and young athletes," said Birch, the league's senior VP of law and labor policy.

It does, and it also makes business sense. The NFL will be providing health care to former players. If they are risking their health by using PEDs, that could make the cost of health care rise. What kind of insurance company is going to want to take on a dirty league given the unknown health risks of those injectable chemical cocktails?

Take a look at WWE. For many years the organization did not have a steroid policy. So many wrestlers have died prematurely that there are Internet sites and regular features on the subject. It is hard to point out cause and effect, as WWE chairman Vince McMahon has noted time and again. You hear others make this argument: Who cares what these guys take as long as I am entertained?

But having your favorite entertainers die before their 40th birthday is particularly gruesome.

It's not just wrestling. Remember the 1976 East German women's swim team? Just because a chemist is able to concoct some formula that gives an athlete a short-term benefit doesn't mean the experiment is a success. Several women have emerged to talk about negative health effects they believe to be the result of the drugs. Others have died.

It's hard to prove cause and effect. Does a handful of testosterone once a week at 13 lead to liver cancer at 40? You can guarantee a black market that supplies athletes with illegal steroids and hormones doesn't have the athletes' long-term health in mind.

The commitment to HGH testing means the NFL is about genuine competition. In a league that features season-ending ACL tears and helmet-to-helmet collisions as regular phenomena, it's hard to say health is the No. 1 priority, but the NFL is trying to protect players from the worst.

Even if cheaters get around the test, the NFL will catch 100 percent more HGH users with a test than without one.

In the past, the league wasn't as responsive as it could have been regarding head injuries, but the NFL is being much more diligent. That's because the long-term effects of head injuries and PED use are not immediate. The NFL may break players, but hopefully not permanently. ACLs and Achilles tendons will heal, and careers can resume after such injuries.

But once players retire from any sport, they should be able to grow old and tell grandchildren about the greatest game they ever played.

And, in a small way, that's what the NFL is getting at with the new testing regimen.

Other professional leagues should take note.