WASHINGTON -- Congress can't officially referee the chess game between the NFL and its players' union regarding the implementation of testing for human growth hormone, but some flags were thrown anyway during a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
Delay of game would be an understated phrase for the nearly two full seasons of maneuvering by the NFLPA that has postponed the initiation of HGH testing since it was included, in principle and conditionally, in the collective bargaining agreement signed in August 2011. Union representatives have put forth argument after argument seeking to undermine the scientific underpinnings of testing methodology that was introduced in international sports in 2004 and is now in widespread use -- including in Major League Baseball, which has conducted 1,700 tests for HGH in the past two years while football has fiddled. About 13,000 test results have been analyzed worldwide, yielding 11 positives.
Dr. Larry Bowers, chief science officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, was joined by doctors and advocates called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a clear attempt to publicly defuse the issues raised by the players' union. They obliged, presenting a unified front on the scientific basis for HGH testing and its importance to the anti-doping arsenal. Several witnesses, including Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, also spoke of the need to battle potential trickle-down effects at the high school and college level of the game.
Afterward, Republican committee chairman Darrell Issa of California and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland stood side-by-side to urge resolution of the testing conflict -- a rare sight in the divided capital. In contrast, comments from management and union officials who took in the testimony from the gallery didn't indicate any softening in their respective positions.
Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president for law and labor policy, called the union's continued insistence on studying NFL players as a group of athletes unlike any other to gauge the specific effectiveness of the HGH test on them "a straw man" based on concerns that are "simply unfounded.'' He said the union has not even been willing to settle on an expert to review the literature on the test and oversee a study, which he reiterated is unnecessary given the track record of the HGH test.
"We're talking about facts … denying the consensus of experts who have been doing this their entire lives,'' Birch said. "As a league we need to look at it in terms of competitive integrity, in terms of being consistent with the NFL having a leadership position in the world of performance-enhancing drugs, and frankly I think this delay in implementing this program has put our leadership position at risk."
But players' union spokesman George Atallah adamantly contended that the testing won't start until both sides agree to protocol, and he dismissed the thought that the dispute could tip over into a public relations problem.
"Our players want it,'' he said of HGH testing. He maintained that the league previously agreed a population study was desirable.
Atallah also said the union has not received sufficient documentation from the World Anti-Doping Agency regarding the peer review process for the test, a suggestion that exasperated WADA director general David Howman.
"We haven't heard from them in months, and we bent over backwards to supply them with all the information we have,'' Howman said by telephone Wednesday. "They've intimated there weren't enough Americans involved in the process and thus their players would be at a disadvantage.
"We're not going to do any more studies. They're not necessary. This has become a political issue.''
Professional football is juggling hot topics that may be of more immediate public interest than performance enhancement at the moment -- bounties and long-term concussion damage -- but those storms shouldn't obscure the union's odd recalcitrance regarding one banned but illogically tolerated substance. Anyone paying attention has the right to wonder what union leadership is afraid of. One of its charges is to protect the health and safety of its members, and there is evidence that HGH can have adverse side effects in the larger doses intended for performance-enhancing purposes (and combined with anabolic steroids) as opposed to therapeutic use.
The original HGH test, known as the isoform test, can detect growth hormone only within a narrow window no longer than a couple of days, which may explain why so few athletes have been busted. A newer biomarker-based test that can reveal HGH use within the previous eight to 10 days was introduced in time for last summer's London Olympics. Two Russian Paralympians tested positive.
It's hard to imagine a more diverse set of athletes than the many thousands in Olympic sports who fall under WADA's testing umbrella. The notion that NFL players somehow differ substantially as a group from a physiological standpoint and thus might produce more false positives has been consistently debunked by anti-doping experts since it was floated.
On Wednesday, Rep. Lacy Clay, a Democrat from Missouri, displayed side-by-side photos of NFL players and Olympic athletes to show a few with comparable heights and weights. He and his colleagues on the committee displayed near-unanimous skepticism and impatience regarding the postponement of HGH testing.
Chairman Issa didn't commit to holding further hearings on the issue -- yet. "We hope that won't be necessary,'' he said. Cummings described the reasoning behind the delay as "excuse after excuse'' and said he hoped Wednesday's session would help budge the roadblock. "I don't think this helps [the NFL's] image,'' he said.
Howman said he would see the implementation of HGH testing in the NFL, assuming it arrives, as a significant milestone and one that players should value even more than he does personally. "It's extremely heartening to see the progress that's been made in the professional leagues -- in some cases, more progress than in the international sports federations,'' he said. "It would be more heartening if it were done with the blessing of the [NFL] players.''