The New York Times is reporting today that MLB plans to introduce testing for human-growth hormone (HGH) at the minor league level later this year. The story comes on the heels of a two-year ban Monday for British rugby player Terry Newton testing positive for HGH.
In a statement this morning, the league addressed the story.
“We are well aware of the important news with respect to the HGH blood test in England . We are consulting with our experts concerning immediate steps for our Minor League Drug Program and next steps for our Major League Drug Program. The Commissioner remains committed to the position that we must act aggressively to deal with the issue of HGH.”
It should be noted that in January of 2008, Commissioner Selig addressed the topic of HGH testing by saying, “When a valid, commercially available and practical test for HGH becomes reality – regardless of whether the test is based on blood or urine – Baseball will support the utilization of that test.”
The news that a North American professional sports league is considering introduction of a test for human-growth hormone is a significant story with more of its fair share of questions. To address some of those questions, Will Carroll, Baseball Prospectus staff member, and author of The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problem (Ivan R. Dee Publishing), and I had the following email conversation today.
Maury Brown: For the uninitiated, how does HGH work in the body, and what, if any, advantages does it give as a performance-enhancing drug?
Will Carroll: HGH, like any hormone, is a protein created by the body. In HGH's case, it's from the pituitary and stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and has some other secondary functions, such as insulin control. It pretty much is self-explanatory. Once recombinant technology made it possible to supplement the natural production, its push as an anabolic agent (growing muscle) was predictable, but the scientific studies have some major questions about it's efficacy. It's also very expensive, easy to track, and hard to store/transport, which makes it far from ideal for doping.
Brown: The league is going to put the testing in place later this year… in the minors, where there is no union protection. The New York Times article implies that that the test might be blood-based. But, even if it isn’t, and it’s urine-based, by MLB’s own admission, the current tests have proven unreliable. That seems to set up a case where the MLBPA would fight it, and there’s the possibility that a minor league player could sue for lost wages, if suspended. For me, the intent is in the right place, but the timing of implementation is off.
SELECT READ MORE TO SEE THE REST OF THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN MAURY BROWN AND WILL CARROLL
Carroll: It's definitely blood-based. There is no urine based test, though Don Catlin is working on both of these. He said early last year that we were still "years away" from an accurate urine test and since we're just now getting to a stage where the WADA blood test is accepted, I think he's optimistic.
The MLBPA has nothing to do with this. This is the minor leagues. There's also no chance that a minor leaguer could sue and win. What I'm curious about are this:
1) Timing is coincident with the first positive HGH test, done in Rugby League of England. That they've never caught someone at Olympics or other WADA-conducted testing tells me it's not that big an issue, not that the test is problematic.
2) What's the test they are using and by extension, what lab? My guess is that it's the WADA test and therefore a WADA lab, like the one MLB uses in Montreal. I don't know that the minor league program is handled the same as MLB.
3) What's the detectable period for the test they're using?
4) Why are they not clearly saying this is blood testing? They can't possibly be using the Ceres test. How will they collect, store, how often, etc?
Brown: Well, to be clear, the commentary on “MLBPA fighting this” is to say that this will be a test in the minors and moving beyond it will be problematic. But, you and I have both seen the most recent Minor League Drug and Treatment Program, and it has been historically used as a jumping-off point for bargaining more stringent testing at the Major League level.
As for whether a minor league player would not be able to sue and win, I’m not so sure. Why wouldn’t there be a case to be made that the current tests out there unreliable?
Back to trying to get an HGH test at the Major League level… I see privacy concerns, based upon blood testing. That, and look how sideways the 2003 Survey Test went. It’s still outstanding in the courts, and could redefine search and seizure. Imagine if blood tests were seized by the Feds. I don’t see HGH testing in the majors for some time… and with that I mean, not until there’s a reliable test out there.
Carroll: I think they see it creeping up, but I also think that it's going to be difficult to fight public opinion. Facts don't work - look, HGH studies have shown conclusively that it's not effective and can actually REDUCE performance. Ok, it makes bones stronger - not a benefit! The detectable period is laughably short. Still, Bud will wave something at Michael Schmidt and ESPN and they'll jump.
First, the public opinion will be massive against the player. Second, most minor leaguers aren't going to have the resources and to go against WADA, you have to go against their system, which will end up at the Court of Sport, not some judge.
WADA's making the argument - strongly - that their blood test is reliable. Those are good, strong scientists who believe strongly in their cause. Rabin and Vernec are not people I'd want to be trying to beat if I was on the other side. If the PA were to make the "unreliable" argument, public opinion would whack them senseless. Again. I'm more curious what the NFL will do, since HGH was a bigger issue for them a decade ago (but is unlikely to be used now.)
Brown: I think there’s a good case to be made that the court of public opinion might raise a ruckus if the PA were to fight it, but by the same token, the fact that blood testing is in play, and is currently unreliable, brings up very real privacy concerns, which many in America can relate to and support. What is going to happen to the samples once tested? You can’t destroy them immediately in case there is a positive test and a retest of the sample were needed to see if it were a false positive. Given how
As for the NFL, they’re already watching closely, and have been trying to get the NFLPA to relent on HGH testing (ESPN is reporting today that the NFL is trying so, again). You have to think each league is communicating over the issue, as are the respective unions for the players.
I just keep coming back to what happened with the 2003 Survey Test samples for steroids. Fighting over privacy concerns seems reasonable based on Constitutionality.
Carroll: You're not going to win on "unreliable." I've sat across a table from the WADA guys and you're just not going to win. Michael Weiner doesn't need my advice, but if I were him, I'd come out and say "We'll be glad to accept an addition of an HGH urine test to the standard panel. We'd also accept for-cause testing for a blood test." You win the public battle and force MLB to be the ones looking to put needles in people. It's a much different situation for the NFL - HGH has already been a major problem for them and size matters in the NFL. Problem is, the league and PA aren't on the best of terms there.
I don't understand your point on samples. Blood testing has an A and B, just like urine. Let's get past the "false positive" thing - red herring. Same with the seizure of samples - the legal issue there is not seizing the samples, but seizing the computers. Today's testing is not anonymous and the G, if they wanted, could grab a sample out of the hand of the collector and see the name right on the tube. This isn't the survey testing and will never be. Athletes initial the sample, for cripe's sake.
Brown: On the “advice” to Michael Weiner: I can see the former but not the latter. There are privacy concerns, and they’ve already voiced that issue. What I’m interested in is if there is a commercially viable test in the works for urine. I keep thinking of what Don Fehr said last March.
"You see periodic reports that there are [HGH] tests out there, and then you never hear about them," Fehr said. "There's certainly no indication that I know of that there's a commercially available test, much less a commercially available urine test, which would solve a lot of problems. It would have to be something that was accurate, that can be vetted and validated by scientific institutions other than the ones trying to sell it to you."
If they get a commercially viable test nailed down for urine, then I think the MLBPA signs off on it.
As for the NFL, I agree that this is where the real battle seems set to go down. As you mentioned, the sides aren’t on the best terms, and let’s face it, the NFLPA has historically not been as strong as the union for MLB’s players – I could see the NFL pushing hard to get the testing in place based upon how the substance weighs more in favor of NFL players, rather than those in baseball.
It sounds like minor league testing is on the way… To what level do you think there is HGH use in sports?
Carroll: Ignore "commercially viable." Don Catlin is working on something and just like Fehr said, it has to be something thats valid. I think a lot of WADA on an integrity basis, even when I don't agree with their methods or focus sometimes, so while I agree with what Fehr said on one level, I don't think WADA is trying to make money here. They ARE pushing their agenda and they're very, very good at that. I actually think Fehr might have been looking more at the ballyhooed Ceres test last year, which I've heard nothing about since.
HGH use? Almost none. I only say almost because there's always someone so far behind the curve. Schaefer got nailed for it, but that was a very unique case in a lot of ways. We saw with Signature that there's been use in baseball inside the last five years, but it was all big name guys coming off injuries. Minor league players are worried more about meal money than they are spending thousands of dollars on a drug. That's why we see minor leaguers getting busted for the cheap stuff they can get in Tijuana.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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