Debate over HGH in the NFL continues with no end in sight
Debate over HGH in the NFL continues with no end in sight
By Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel
April 30, 2013
Green Bay - As soon as the three letters are mentioned - H-G-H - the player laughs. Human growth hormone? In the NFL? Come on. HGH use is rampant, this NFC starter says.
"It's like clockwork nowadays," he said, estimating 10-15 players on each team use the banned substance. "Not tested and it's easy to get. Nowadays, dude? In 2013? (Expletive) yeah. I'm just being real."
When the NFL and NFLPA ended their labor dispute in 2011, they agreed that HGH testing was needed. The problem was acknowledged. Two years later, the problem still has not been addressed. The NFLPA claims it wants a fair process. The league has yet to do much beyond tough talk.
What's certain is that HGH is prevalent and the pressure to fuel one's body with performance-enhancing supplements runs high. As long as there's no stringent HGH testing in place - with clear, steep consequences - its use will continue.
While many current players insist they want testing, they want a clean game, they want doubts extinguished, the truth remains clouded.
This NFC starter has heard all of the off-season talking points. He calls such rhetoric "nonsense."
Considering the pressure players face, he says HGH should not even be an issue.
"I say, just let guys do it," he said. "This is our career. We're putting on for fans. I say . . . HGH isn't anything. I say, do it. . . . You're going to get hit hard regardless whether you're clean or not clean. It's just a matter of how hard you get hit. I don't care who's taking it. A hit is a hit."
A growing athlete
One reality cannot be ignored. Players in the NFL are getting bigger, stronger and faster.
Emphasis on bigger.
Through his five decades in the league, Gil Brandt has seen exponential growth. In 1983, the former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel points out, the biggest tight end drafted was Tony Hunter, out of Notre Dame at 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 236 pounds. In this year's NFL draft, 19 tight ends average 247 pounds. Fourteen are 6-foot-4 or taller.
In the trenches, offensive lineman have transformed from husky to gargantuan. At the NFL scouting combine in February, two offensive linemen weighed less than 300 pounds. Two of 58. And they were both a Snickers bar away, too. One was 298 pounds, one was 299. In 1979, Brandt says the largest player drafted was Oklahoma's Sam Claphan at 272 pounds.
This isn't a reversible trend. The size of players in the NFL will only increase.
"I would imagine so," Brandt said. "The kids are getting bigger. Everybody's getting bigger today."
Of course, advancements in training, nutrition and technology are all - perfectly clean - factors. So is a good old-fashioned work ethic. But the advent of human growth hormone aids this trend. HGH increases lean muscle mass and can potentially help with rehab and recovery, which allows athletes to train harder.
In years past, HGH - which is made in the pituitary gland - was extracted from humans for humans to, for example, help spur growth in young children. Now, it can be used synthetically. Even though it's illegal without a prescription in the United States, HGH is fairly easy to obtain in the black market.
"It regulates muscle growth," said Patrick Jost, an orthopedic surgeon in Milwaukee. "So when athletes take it, the idea is that they're going to build muscle. What's been shown - which is very clear - is if the adult takes human growth hormone, they'll get increased lean muscle mass."
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff dismissed the notion that this general increase in size, across the board, is a problem. If legal and "managed properly," he said, it's a good thing. The use of illegal supplements is not as widespread as it was in the 1980s, he said.
Yet Dimitroff also isn't na´ve. HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs are available. He believes it's on the teams to monitor their players, to investigate where needed.
"I think, quite often, we've all seen guys and thought, 'Ahh, they look a little bit closer, so maybe this guy,' " Dimitroff said. "So I think it's up to the organization to keep their eye on it. . . . That's part of my job as a general manager and the job as a head coach - to assess and see if there are any outliers that would indicate if someone maybe was dabbling in PED."
Until a blood test is instituted, that's how it is policed. An honor system.
So of course players will push the limit.
For many teammates, each off-season was steroid season. When players reconvened at Dallas Cowboys headquarters, Darren Woodson barely recognized guys. HGH was not prominent yet. Steroids were.
"You could see it," said Woodson, a former All-Pro safety for the Cowboys. "It was obvious that certain guys came back a lot stronger and a lot faster."
Undrafted free agents. Veterans trying to hang on. Players driven by desperation were more willing to test their luck, to cheat their profession. As training camp wore on and testing day neared, many of those same players would begin to lose mass.
Woodson has been out of the game for 10 years. But he's heard about quick-healing effects of HGH, how it can be coupled with anabolic steroids, and he's certain it's prevalent.
Too much pressure. Too much money involved.
"You know it's there," Woodson said. "In the NFL, when you talk about the pace, the injuries and the recovery time and the short week, how important every game is, week to week, it's more than baseball, basketball or any other sport. There are 16 games. You have to get back on that field in a hurry.
"It's not like you can miss Wednesday's practice when you're putting a game plan in. You need to be out there."
Both Woodson and former Packers safety LeRoy Butler estimate that about a dozen players on each team use human growth hormone. "Easy," Woodson affirms. "Easy." They didn't see it, didn't use it. In the 1990s, HGH was an unknown. But both understand the psyche of the NFL player. If morals alone serve as the lone deterrent, then HGH is going to be popular.
The NFL season is a marathon full of injuries. Jobs are constantly on the line.
"My body's going to feel like a machine," Butler said. "I can keep working out and I'm also not going to sit out with a hamstring, ankle or shoulder injury - especially if you're about to sign a big contract. . . . You're kind of arrogant. You say, 'Well, they won't catch me' or 'I can get away with this.' But as long as there's no testing for it, guys are going to push the envelope."
Added Woodson, "You can't tell me that these lower-level guys coming out of college that were free agents - or guys cut from one team to another - wouldn't do anything."
Many current players do sincerely want a clean game, a game where consciences run clear.
Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito praised the league's drug policy, saying players are rigorously tested. As for the one outlier, HGH, Incognito said, "No question, you want a clean game. You want a clean game to know that when you're competing against the top guys of your profession."
Earl Thomas, the Seattle Seahawks 5-foot-10, 202-pound missile of a safety, says he was never tempted to take HGH and declined to put a number on its use in the league. He wants suspicions eliminated. Thomas says many players get accolades "when they don't deserve it."
"You put in a lot of hard work," Thomas said. "Especially with me being my size and what I've accomplished so far. . . . I trust my ability and my God-given talent, and nothing else really matters."
That's not a universal sentiment. Not in the most make-or-break sports league on the planet. There's no minor-league fallback. The average NFL career lasts roughly three years, a minuscule window for millions of dollars, for long-term security. That's why the anonymous NFC starter quoted at the beginning of this story says many players use HGH freely.
"There's just so much pressure," the player said, "so much you have to do and so much on your body. So why wouldn't you want to take care of that?"
Second-year Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman says he doesn't take anything beyond a post-workout protein shake. And when push comes to shove, he truly believes a player's raw ability trumps all. But he's also not na´ve.
The player across the line, the wide receivers he faces each Sunday, could be on something. Be it steroids, HGH, other underground supplements, players are going to roll the dice.
"Of course," Norman said. "There's always people looking for a way to get an edge. What do they say? It ain't cheating until you get caught. Some guys are going to do it anyway. Some guys are going to be that way because that's just them. There's nothing to get past that, nothing to get through that."
Rhetoric from both sides hasn't changed. Their arms virtually crossed, the NFL and NFLPA continue to trade barbs.
Last month, the three-year suspension of two-time Olympic cross country skiing champion Andrus Veerpalu was overturned by arbitrators who cited that while the HGH test was valid, there were procedural flaws.
In response, the NFLPA released a statement that the decision "validates the players' demand for scientific validity, full due process rights, and a transparent system." And in an email last week, league spokesman Greg Aiello maintained that "the union has refused to agree to begin testing, despite our efforts to address all of its concerns," adding that there is "no debate among the scientists about the validity of the test. It is a valid test. We want to begin testing as soon as possible."
If testing were implemented, there could be serious collateral damage. The league's image is at stake 24/7. More than 108.4 million people were estimated to have watched the Super Bowl between Baltimore and San Francisco. If HGH testing is instituted and stars begin to test positive that popularity could take a hit.
Major League Baseball was demonized for more than a decade in the court of public opinion. The realization that the epic home-run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was juiced stained the sport.
So the perception in HGH testing being stalled is that neither side wants skeletons out of the closet. Players testing positive is bad business for all parties involved. As Woodson says, substantive discussions on HGH seem to take place "in a dark room." It's quiet, under wraps.
"They're not raising hell about it," Woodson said of the league. "They all know it's a problem. I don't know if they're trying to wean guys off or if they're trying to get as much information as they can to say, 'Hey, this is coming at some point.' But it's coming.
"Does Roger Goodell want the league to have a black eye? Hell no. He doesn't want to go through the same thing baseball just went through."
If one-quarter of the players are truly taking HGH, the NFL could be tip-toeing around a public relations nightmare.
A continued debate
Even if HGH testing is ushered in at some point, science will, as always, evolve. Innovative ways to add mass, get healthy, stay healthy and / or be the "machine" Butler describes will continue. Underground, there's more than deer antler spray. Maybe human growth hormone is en vogue right now, but as Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith says, the search for an edge will continue.
"If they test for it," Smith said, "the guys taking it now will probably find something else they can take instead. I'm sure there's always something else out there."
Norman describes it all as an "uphill battle."
The "radicals," as he calls them, won't stop searching for something.
"Guys are going to take stuff," Norman said. "That's just what they do. To get an edge in any sport, you're going to have a guy take something to get over that other guy. That's just the way it is. It's always been that way. If you take something, and change it, it's not going to matter. They'll just go out there and find something else."
And, in turn, the debate of what does and does not constitute "cheating" will continue to rage. Jost, the doctor from Milwaukee, isn't so sure that HGH is such a performance-enhancer. While it does increase lean muscle mass - and could potentially help with recovery - he says that "something about it makes the athlete not stronger."
HGH can lead to a higher build-up of lactic acid, causing muscle cramps. Added mass doesn't necessarily mean added strength, he said.
There's obviously a reason athletes take HGH and a reason it's banned. But Jost said he doesn't think it should be part of the same conversation as steroids.
"If you take anabolic steroids, which is a totally different thing, basically testosterone, you get stronger," he said. "You definitely get stronger that way. Something about the growth hormone - the body needs a certain amount - but beyond a certain amount, it doesn't add any real benefit and the body doesn't handle it properly."
Ahman Green would agree. The Green Bay Packers' all-time leading rusher remembers hearing whispers that he was taking illegal supplements. He'd laugh it off. Green calls any decision to take anything "a crutch" and that if "busting your butt in the weight room" got you to this level, keep it that way.
He says sweat, not supplements, led to 9,205 yards and 60 touchdowns through his eight-year career.
Yet Green - likely echoing how many current players feel - doesn't view growth hormone as some blatant form of cheating, saying "You make it, I make it, everybody on this earth makes it."
"It's just now that with science, we can put it in our body," Green said. "We can get more of it, whether it's for fuel, bigger muscles or what have you. As long as guys don't abuse, it's not steroids. It's basically like putting motor oil back in a car."
Any ambiguity with HGH feeds a larger debate. As medicine and technology evolves, what do we all consider cheating? The athlete must still catch the football, hit the baseball. This conversation doesn't end.
Still, HGH testing is one place the NFL and NFLPA can draw a line and eliminate doubts, suspicion.
Twenty-one months after agreeing to a test, HGH remains a part of the NFL. That's the cold, unsettling reality.
"Until they start testing for it, it's not illegal, right?" Woodson said. "It's just a dirty game. I've always felt it was that way."