NFL's Drug Record Belies Failure to Test for HGH
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The National Football League is marching into the fifth weekend of its regular season and here's what's on the minds of many NFL fans. Are the undefeated Chicago Bears as good as they look? Are the winless Oakland Raiders as bad they appear? There's little, if any, discussion about doping.
That's widely considered to be more of problem in baseball. Football has not taken the same hit to its image, even though recent evidence suggests there may be a doping problem in the NFL.
NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN: It's the journalistic equivalent of a tree falling in the forest. If a revealing newspaper article is met largely with a shrug, did it actually reveal anything? Absolutely, says Dr. Gary Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Dr. GARY WADLER (World Anti-Doping Agency): It was one of the most profound finds I think we've seen in sports and it sort of really surprised me.
GOLDMAN: A little over a month ago, The Charlotte Observer printed a story based in part on Dr. Wadler's findings of heavy and repeated performance enhancing drug use by several members of the NFL's Carolina Panthers. As part of a federal drug investigation, Wadler was given access to medical records and tape recordings that provided rare details of how players used steroids and human growth hormone over several years, including the run up to the Panthers' 2004 appearance in the Super Bowl. The players included three of the five starting offensive linemen from the Super Bowl team. Charles Chandler wrote the article for The Observer.
Mr. CHARLES CHANDLER (The Charlotte Observer): Their name's not Barry Bonds and they're not setting home run records, but at the same time they're playing in arguably the biggest sporting event in our country in any given year.
GOLDMAN: Yet, the biggest news from that Super Bowl remains Janet Jackson's exposed breast at halftime. Since Chandler's article, there's been some talk about the NFL and doping, certainly nothing like the Barry Bonds and baseball headlines of the past few years. If it seems as if the NFL is getting a pass, part of the reason is the league has earned it.
Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): I want to say that this hearing today is like light years different from Major League Baseball. Commissioner I want to thank you for knowing what the hell's going on.
GOLDMAN: Last year, Connecticut Representative Christopher Shays praised then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL for the league's anti-doping efforts. While baseball was dragged into steroid testing in the last few years, the NFL has been testing for over 20 years, has been proactive on drug issues, and the league never misses a chance to spread that word to lawmakers and the media.
Still, The Observer article points out none of the Panthers players who were doping tested positive and all were using human growth hormone, which is becoming pro sports' performance enhancing enemy number one. The all-purpose drug, which can promote muscle growth and reduce the chance of injury, is banned in the NFL and baseball.
But they don't test for it, which means, says reporter Charles Chandler, the NFL's claim that doping by the Panthers was an isolated situation may not be the case.
Mr. CHANDLER: You've got a drug here that people believe can help them get better and help them get an edge and it's not being tested for. I mean, duh. If you've got something that right now can't be caught, I mean we would be crazy not to take it extremely seriously and think it might be going on in a widespread fashion.
Mr. DOUG ALLEN (NFL Player's Union): I think that's completely unsubstantiated by any evidence.
GOLDMAN: And, in fact, Doug Allen, the number two man at the NFL Player's Union, says he's gotten the strong indication that HGH use is not widespread. Twenty years ago, says Allen, it was players who prompted the league to address steroids because they didn't want to have to take them to stay competitive.
Mr. ALLEN: They aren't saying that now. They aren't coming to us and saying I don't want to have to do this. I'm forced to do it because in order to compete I have to do it. They aren't saying that about HGH and I think there's a reason for that - because we don't have a problem in the NFL.
GOLDMAN: But last month, Jon Jansen said perhaps the league does. In an interview, the Washington Redskins offensive lineman said maybe 15-20 percent of NFL players use banned drugs. Jansen then backed off that statement, but he did say it would be very naïve and foolish to think players are not using humane growth hormone.
One way to find out for sure is to test for it. There is a blood test for HGH. The World Anti-Doping Agency says it's been scientifically validated, but the NFL says the test is unreliable. Plus, the NFL is vehemently opposed to blood testing, not wanting its athletes regularly stuck with needles. League and union officials are holding out for a urine test, but they'll be waiting a long time. Scientists agree a valid urine HGH test is years away.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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