Recently, Terry Newton—a rugby player from the United Kingdom—made headlines as the world’s first professional athlete to receive a suspension for using human growth hormones (HGH). What is even more shocking is the fact that he actually owned up to it. While on the surface this looks to be a giant leap forward in the battle against performance enhancing drugs, the truth is a test for HGH has been around since the Athens Olympics in 2004. Now, however, baseball officials seem to be chomping at the bit to start testing players. Bud Selig’s current plan is to experiment with the blood based test in the minor leagues and then potentially bring it to the major league. Today’s debate addresses the issue, should Major League Baseball (MLB) bother with beginning testing for HGH in the minor leagues or just go straight to testing in the Majors?
Suggesting that HGH testing move straight to the Bigs is a knee-jerk reaction at best. Baseball officials have been functioning in damage control mode because of performance enhancing drug scandals for so long that they seem to have forgotten how to address issues – with a plan. Nothing would be gained from rushing the implementation of the test, except a shallow perception that baseball is somehow tougher on performance enhancing drugs. Testing for HGH would not change the weak suspensions that MLB issues for offenders. So what is to gain by hastily implementing a controversial “new” test that baseball has previously criticized? Absolutely nothing!
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment by posing the questions, what is the big deal about HGH use in the first place? Is it really that bad? Dr. Richard Hellman, the president of the board of directors for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) states that, “careful scientific studies show that the effect of the growth hormone on improving muscle strength [to a professional athlete] is relatively small and much less important than their training regiment.” Hellman also states that, “When a healthy adult male takes growth hormone either to improve athletic performance, or to improve muscle building, or to prevent aging, he is always making a mistake and wasting his money…There is little benefit from these substances [HGH and androgens], and unlimited risk.” The side effects of excessive HGH use include changes in temperament, anger problems, excessive sweating, arthritis, and even diabetes. These side effects are most certainly a punishment in their own right, not to mention the fact that they could actually shorten a player’s career. In my opinion the negatives far outweigh the positives and the athlete engaging in the risky behavior is in reality cheating himself.
There is also a matter of timing to consider. Baseball’s current labor contract does not expire until 2011. Taking action at the major league level before that time would require the consent of the players’ union. Supposing that the players union rejects the proposal to test in the majors in 2010, which both the MLB and NFL players unions have done previously, the media backlash would be monumental. Baseball already has a tarnished image, due in no small part to performance enhancing drug scandals. The last thing Bud Selig wants right now is to have to explain away why baseball players do not want to submit to more drug testing. If HGH testing is something MLB deems essential, then they should test it in the minor leagues this year and make it a sticking point for the Majors under the next labor agreement. We are seriously talking about the difference of waiting one season at the major league level. Anything more drastic could potentially cause a work stoppage. Can baseball afford that right now, during the current economic recession? I do not think so. Certainly baseball has a responsibility to clean up the game, but that does not mean that they should sacrifice good business sense to do it.
Plus this debate hangs on a very fine point–should HGH blood testing be instituted at the major league level this year. No one is suggesting that baseball bury its head in the ground like it did during the steroid era of the 1990s. I merely suggest that MLB use caution moving forward. HGH blood testing is not universally seen as trustworthy. Although an HGH blood test has been around for nearly 6 years, baseball officials have previously questioned the tests validity. Now, in the wake of one suspension issued because of one unchallenged, positive test on a different continent in another sport, and baseball officials are starting to sing a different tune. It just does not seem like a well thought out plan to jump head first into full blown, major league 40-man roster testing without at least trying it at the minor league level first. Imagine the publicity nightmare that would ensue if a high profile all-star, like Albert Pujols, tests positive and then publicly disputes the validity of a test which the league also previously questioned. That would require some major back peddling from Bud Selig. Baseball has a plan in place, and there is no justification to push this on the Majors without having tested it at the minor league level first.