I wish it weren’t so, but what athletes put in their bodies is driving the news cycle right now (August tends to be a slow month in both sports and politics). I wanted to flag some comments Chris Mortensen made on Mike and Mike yesterday morning. The NFL Player’s Association and the League are currently haggling over implementation of a new regime of HGH blood testing (and Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, is threatening federal action if the league and the players don’t get this sorted out). HGH appears to have become the drug category of course over the past few years, as it’s widely assumed to have fewer side effects than anabolic steroids and, perhaps most importantly, is very difficult to test for. Urine tests for HGH are almost useless and even blood tests have to take place within a narrow window, as HGH clears the system within a day. There is a separate debate about what HGH accomplishes when taken by athletes, but clearly many believe it helps them and the practice appears to be widespread.
Returning to the difficulty of testing for HGH, according to Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein (who in the article linked above proposes a better way to test for HGH), out of more than 12,000 tests worldwide since 2004, only a dozen have come back positive. This is both because growth hormone leaves the body quickly and because it naturally occurs in the body. Because of this fact, tests to detect artificial levels of the substance have to set a “decision limit” high enough that it would be implausible to construe a positive test result as anything other than the product of cheating. Establishing baseline levels for athletes, by using biomarker tests, might give testers a better shot at detecting illicit use. But as a Scientific American discussion recently argued, those designing the drugs seem always to be a step ahead of those trying to stop its use, making testing for PEDs perhaps almost entirely futile. In posting that discussion, Wages of Wins’ Devin Dignam pointed out that the IOC is now focusing on “intelligence and information” to try to ferret out rule-breakers. MLB has talked a lot about a strengthened testing regime – they’ve begun in-season HGH testing this season. But it may well be that its primary means of catching those who use HGH would be via investigation, as in the Biogenesis case.
Back to Mortensen. Yesterday, Mike Golic and Jonathan “the Coach” Coachman (filling in for Greenie) were discussing the dispute over HGH testing in the NFL and other football matters with the veteran football reporter. When the subject of testing came up, Mortensen was surprisingly dismissive, describing it as little more than a “publicity stunt,” that the league would start such testing, given the difficulty of detection. Mortensen isn’t a doctor, of course, but presumably he’s getting his opinion from folks around the league who are at least somewhat informed about these issues. We will see whether the tests catch anyone. But it’s interesting that – as has been widely noted – there is almost certainly rampant performance-related drug use in the NFL and, yet little more than bemused curiosity about how the NFL could draw so little negative fire for its drug use, whereas it’s essentially the lead story when it comes to baseball. Mortensen, who’s very well-connected, may have been providing a revealing glimpse into the thinking of at least some in the League – that political pressure and a general climate of anger about PED use forces the leagues to say (and do) the right things. But the product on the field is, to some (hard to specify) degree, bolstered by the very thing the leagues decry.
OK – a few words about Braun. The Brewers’ slugger issued a formal written apology last night, saying he’d been “in denial,” was “deeply ashamed” of his actions and specifically apologized to Dino Laurenzi, Jr., the testing sample collector whom Braun excoriated during the process of successfully appealing his positive test at the end of the 2011 season. The general reaction, according to the wall-to-wall coverage of the statement on ESPN this morning was that Braun’s mea culpa was welcome, it was too vague, didn’t go far enough and, most importantly, was not done in person, in front of the media (sports journalists often imagine themselves great judges of character, but I think they overrate their ability to sniff out disingenuousness). Since there wasn’t much more to say about the statement than this, ESPN repeated approximately 944 times this morning that the statement was 944 words long (a vitally important fact). I agree with Cowherd – the thing about Braun’s actions that was most despicable in all this was the self-righteous way that he went after Laurenzi, Jr.
As for the rest of it, Braun may be facing legal problems down the road, making discretion the better part of valor here, even if it means less fodder for the news cycle.