MLB General

MLB’s New HGH Test More Smoke and Mirrors

Most shocking, perhaps, to those who have followed and have lived through the steroid era in MLB, has been the MLBPA’s seemingly caving in to HGH testing; especially with the speciousness of the current state of HGH testing capabilities. Its accuracy and protocol is still being challenged amongst the science community to date.

By Diane M. Grassi

Major League Baseball’s (MLB) latest feat of extended “labor peace” with the Major League Players Association (MLBPA) was reached on November 22, 2011.

And in this latest Basic Agreement between the parties, which will run five years in duration and expire on December 1, 2016, MLB has apparently won out in its attempt to curb illicit use of human growth hormone (HGH), by its players. However, such a test could prove to be little more than a charade, as it stands now.

The lockouts, by both the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) this year perhaps did not go by unnoticed by MLB brass in its seemingly under the radar collective bargaining talks with the MLBPA, this past fall; in its attempt to show up the other leagues’ rather unkempt labor relations.

And MLB Commissioner, Bud Selig, made it quite clear, by way of his public display of self-aggrandizement during the week following a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was reached, that his is the first North American professional sports league to agree to such a test for HGH. And perhaps it was indeed Selig’s latest and greatest coup yet, in such a pronouncement, however yet to be realized.

MLBPA Executive Director, Michael Weiner, too, celebrated his own Mission Accomplished, having been given high grades, by those in the sports industry, for his first collective bargaining test with MLB.

Most shocking, perhaps, to those who have followed and have lived through the steroid era in MLB, has been the MLBPA’s apparent cave in to HGH testing; especially with the speciousness of the current state of HGH testing capabilities. Its accuracy and protocol is still being challenged amongst the science community to date.

While the technology will evolve in time, it is not yet there. It still requires an invasive blood test for such wanted results and not the urinalysis which Bud Selig touted was his desire before MLB ever proceeded with any such HGH test.

Yet, while utilized by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) internationally for athletic competition for years, the current test’s accuracy specifically for HGH remains under a cloud.

Designer drugs in varietal cocktails made up of many different substances, continue to evolve, albeit illegally. And ways of administering drugs have become more and more sophisticated amongst cheaters and those who provide such ways to cheat. And the question remains as to whether formidable tests will be able to ever keep up with any due accuracy.

For decades it was the “amateur” ranks of athletes, primarily in the endurance sports for the Olympics which initially lead to the testing of steroids, erythropoietin (EPO), blood doping and now HGH. And as the revenue grew relative to these sports, testing grew commensurate with it.

But much like many competition results of athletes on performance enhancing drugs became a sham, so too have some of these test results. And now both athlete and tester are in it for same goal: for them both to come out looking better than they really are.

For the MLBPA to cede power over to MLB for HGH testing makes even less sense from a player’s standpoint. Michael Weiner even admitted after the new CBA was announced that such a test has its challenges when he stated that, “There’s a difference amongst scientists we’ve consulted.”

And given that the test during the first year will only take place during spring training, with no finite plan yet to roll it out during in-season play, may be a clue as to its veracity not yet being ready for prime-time.

But that which perhaps precipitated the apparent rush by MLB and its players to start HGH testing could have indeed been the NFL. As such, the NFL and its players association (NFLPA) included a provision for HGH testing in their new CBA. But to date it has hit a road block. MLB simply wanted to be first.

Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform, that led the pack on investigations into steroids in baseball, are now breathing down the necks of the NFL players in their impasse to comply with the CBA and the clause requiring HGH testing.

Article 39, Sec. 7(b) of the NFL’s CBA states: “The parties confirm that the Program on Anabolic Steroids and related Substances will include both annual blood testing and random blood testing for human growth hormone, with discipline for positive tests at the same level as for steroids.”

But now since their CBA was reached in July 2011 and counter to what the Congressional committee wants, the NFLPA has requested that any HGH testing process begin with a population study of all NFL players, to establish a testing threshold or baseline. The theory is based upon more accurately testing the blood chemistry dedicated to that of the NFL athlete as opposed to those in other types of athletic disciplines.

To wit, the argument by the NFLPA is that the blood portfolio of figure skaters or swimmers or cyclists or even baseball players are so different from that of an NFL player, that the criteria should be different for testing and be developed over time.

And perhaps the NLFPA is not merely stalling to protect alleged use of HGH by its players, even though it was supposedly agreed upon in the CBA. It could be that the lockout was wearing on a lot of players, and that they thought that they could fix their concerns subsequently, as they are now attempting to do.

But Travis Tygart, CEO of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), – which purportedly will be the testing body for MLB – sounded off on the NFLPA when he said, “It seems clear now they’re protecting their dirty players by further delaying the implementation of this test and not honoring the agreement they made to start this test at the beginning of the season.”

Meanwhile Victor Conte, a Tygart adversary and notorious founder of BALCO and since serving 4 months in prison several years back for his participation in supplying performance enhancing drugs primarily to Olympic athletes and MLB players, has a new supplement business.

Conte claims he is now reformed and is an advocate for fighting illegal drugs in amateur and professional sports and is open to giving advice on testing protocols.

Whether or not Conte’s new lease on life is believable or not, his knowledge of the use, distribution and makeup of illicit drugs used by athletes still remains expert. And in order to understand how premature HGH testing is before the science technology is more fully developed, Conte disclosed his concerns to the New York Daily News, after MLB’s HGH testing announcement.

“MLB should use a more sophisticated form of detecting testosterone, or its HGH testing won’t make an impact, since players often use small amounts of testosterone, in conjunction with HGH,” Conte says.

“HGH is not effective unless used with testosterone or other anabolic steroids. Although HGH helps to reduce muscle degradation, by itself, HGH has no significant performance-enhancing effects.”

Conte goes on to say that, “The 4-1 testosterone to epitestosterone ratio used by baseball and other leagues to detect testosterone use is ineffective.”

Moreover, according to Conte, testosterone in the form of gels, creams and patches leave the system within 48 – 72 hours after application, and are beneath the present 4-1 ratio that MLB has set up for its testing, and therefore undetectable.

So, therefore, fast-acting forms of testosterone to help with recovery could be within the normal range of the test by the next day.

There is, however, according to Conte, a far better detection test available to MLB, if they were truly serious about utilizing a valid test. But it would be more costly and would reveal perhaps that which MLB would not want known; just how many of their players are still using various composites of illegal substances.

The test Conte cites is the carbon isotope ratio (CIR) which tests for fast-acting testosterone. And it tests the levels of hematocrit, the byproduct of EPO or other blood boosters, which should also be examined in HGH testing. Hematocrit is simply the percentage red blood cells are of whole blood cells. If over 50%, it is a positive test.

MLB and WADA are both in full-spin mode in perpetrating on the players’ union, the public and even the Congress, that its HGH testing techniques are accurate. But when it comes to eradicating unhealthy and unsafe practices by athletes, if there is indeed a true effort to clean up drug use, how about if professional sports leagues were to do it the right way, as accurately and as transparently as possible?

But that would most likely be prohibited by the powers-that-be due to cost, time and a necessary dedication to fairness in sports. Far better to make the public falsely believe that professional sports are being cleaned up and that league commissioners are acting in the best interests of their respective sports.

Yet, their dedication to under-developed testing instead will hopefully come back to bite them sooner rather than later.

Let us hope that sports fans of all stripes will still care by then.

Copyright ©2011 Diane M. Grassi
Contact: [email protected]

By Diane M. Grassi

Diane M. Grassi attempts to shine new light on issues centered on professional and amateur sports through her writing, by going beyond the headlines and sound-bites and to present sports fans with the back-story. In that effort, she seeks out those issues that rarely become headlines and elicits discussion as to why that is case.

Grassi’s goal is to not only provide content, but to offer an outlet for sports fans of all types, of various backgrounds and life experiences, to engage in topical issues with candor, good humor and provocative thought. Yet, to Grassi, it is the issues that are paramount, as opposed to the messenger, while maintaining intellectually honest and original fact-based reporting and research without an agenda.

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