On Thursday, MLB announced that it would immediately begin subjecting minor league players to random blood testing for the detection of human growth hormone (hGH) under Major League Baseball’s Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. The league touted that it will be the first U.S. sports league to conduct blood testing on players for the substance, which has been shown to be a performance enhancer.
On the face of it, the move comes off as little more than a PR move for the league. Unless a player stumbled across a sack of money, the cost for the designer substance is well beyond the means of players on a minor league salary, and hGH’s short-lived 24-hour latency period in the body means that even if a player did have the means to obtain the substance, chances are low that it would ever be detected through random testing.
“It wouldn't take much of an IQ for a player to circumvent this proposed hGH testing procedure,” said Victor Conte, the former head of BALCO, and one that has been at the center of several federal investigations into PED use by professional athletes. “Drug testing must be completely random in order to be effective. A baseball player could possibly inject hGH as soon as leaving a ballpark and test negative from a blood sample collected ‘post-game’ the following day. HGH injections are routinely done at night before bed, so a morning blood sample would be the target. The available test for hGH requires a random blood collection protocol to be considered anything more than a PR move by MLB.”
One could also argue that there is far more of a need to address steroids at the minor league level, which are more readily available, and have seen steady increases in suspensions over the last few years (See the complete history of drug suspensions in Minor and Major League Baseball)
But, the real move by MLB in adding hGH testing in the minors is about what is coming up on the calendar.
If you think about it, the most logical timing for something as dramatic as blood testing for hGH would begin in the off-season, not now when the season is edging toward completion. But, if the intent is to use the minor league testing program as a starting point for leveraging at the major league level, it makes good sense.
Shortly after the World Series is completed, collective bargaining sessions will begin in earnest between the league and representatives of the MLB Players Association as they work toward a new CBA. Indeed, wording within MLB’s press release on Thursday pointed a finger directly at the MLBPA.
“Since Minor League players are not members of the Players Association, blood testing for hGH is not a subject for collective bargaining,” read the statement.
The action by the league to undergo hGH testing was done without visibility to the union for the players, which prompted a response by Michael Wiener, the Executive Director of the MLBPA.
"The union's position on hGH testing remains unchanged; when a test is available that is scientifically validated and that can be administered safely and without interfering with the players' ability to compete, it will be considered," said Weiner. "We have been engaged with the Commissioner's Office on this subject for several months, though they have not shared with us the specifics behind their decision to begin blood testing of minor leaguers. We look forward to further discussions with the Commissioner's Office on this important topic."
Which brings us back to the calendar and the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Tied to the CBA is the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) for the league and MLB’s players (see the current JDA). Clearly, this move by MLB to institute hGH testing in the minors is the launch point to discussions at the major league level, and in doing so now, without advance warning to the MLBPA, is a preemptive strike.
But, given the fact that there is no current urine test for hGH, and Michael Weiner’s comment about testing being “administered safely and without interfering with the players' ability to compete”, chances are that MLB’s players will kill off any discussion of hGH testing right out of the gate.
But, that doesn’t mean bring up hGH testing in collective bargaining doesn’t serve a purpose for the league.
Collective bargaining is, most often times, about give and take. It’s possible that what could occur would go something like this:
MLB will ask that hGH testing be added into the new JDA when the current one expires in mid-December of 2011. The MLBPA will counter that the players are opposed to the current test based upon the fact that players are subjected to blood draws. The league will win the PR battle by saying, “We tried”, but can also look to get concessions on other issues. These could be tied to the drug policy, but there’s nothing to say that the league couldn’t look to use it on other negotiating points such as a hard-slotting system for the draft. Denying hGH testing could also be used by the league to deny concessions being sought by the MLBPA.
In other words, on the face of it, hGH testing in the minors is a PR move, but given the timing of its implementation, shortly before collective bargaining begins, it is a prime negotiating chip that can be used to advantage by the league. If so, hGH testing in the minors is more than just a PR move, it’s a savvy bit of leveraging for the future.
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, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. 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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