By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*
The NFL is insisting that all players in the league be tested for human growth hormone (HGH), according to ESPN. Owners want the testing as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, saying that it's important to the integrity of the game.
No one knows how widespread the use of HGH may be. FDA regulations restrict its use and say it must be administered by a physician. However, movie stars such as Sylvester Stallone have promoted HGH as part of their fitness regime. And tests for HGH have generally been regarded as ineffective, in part because they can only catch someone who has used it within 48 hours -- or perhaps less.
But new tests are in development that could increase the testing window to two weeks. Terry Newton, a UK rugby player, was the first professional sport star to be caught by an HGH test when he tested positive and accepted a two-year suspension last year. But his story ended in tragedy when he killed himself a few months later.
In an interview before his death, Newton admitted he became a cheater, in his own words, as he tried to resurrect his career following an injury. He'd heard gossip that there were other players using it and that it was undetectable. "I was cheating, but I thought other people were cheating too – and that there was no way of getting found out," he told the The Independent. But even after admitting his own failings, he refused to name others who he knew were using HGH.
That's another sad part of his story. Newton had so much loyalty to his former teammates that he allowed them to keep cheating, even though he knew the consequences for the game and for other users. Loyalty trumped his sense of right and wrong.
That Newton would allow his mates to use the drug suggests that he still saw success in the game as more important than long-term health. As the Independent also reported, HGH can have even more dangerous side effects than steroids: "It can lead to swelling of the body's soft tissues, abnormal growth of the hands, feet and face, high blood pressure, blood clots, diabetes, increased sweating, and excessive hair growth. Organs including the heart, liver and kidneys, may also grow excessively, leading to potentially life-threatening problems such as cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. Researchers have also linked HGH to an increased risks of cancer and overloading of the adrenal glands, which can result in infection and illness."
One sense you get from the NFL negotiations is that attitudes regarding the health of players may be slowly changing. The clamor for rule changes to prevent head injuries and concern about testing for performance enhancing drugs may be an indication that long-term health costs are beginning to take on greater importance.
In the Barry Bonds trial, his old friend Steve Hoskins testified, "I was the one trying to stop him from taking steroids because I thought it was bad for him." That's the kind of refreshing attitude that would be as valuable to sport as testing for HGH.