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NFL players concerned about blood tests for human growth hormone

Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark, a union player representative, says issue may have been 'overlooked' in labor deal. The worry is samples could be used to gather other information; NFL official dispels that.

August 08, 2011|By Sam Farmer
  • Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark leaves the field during a team practice session on Wednesday. Clark is concerned the NFL might use blood samples taken for HGH tests for other purposes.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark leaves the field during a team practice… (Keith Srakocic / Associated…)

Reporting from Latrobe, Pa. — Ryan Clark has some pointed words for the needle.

The Pittsburgh Steelers safety and player representative to the union is disappointed the players decided to allow the NFL to test blood for human growth hormone, something they had resisted for years.

"I think people wanted to get a deal done so badly that it was overlooked," Clark said. "In that sense, players kind of got screwed, for lack of a better word."

Like many players, Clark said he's all for the idea of catching cheaters and wants a level playing field. But he believes giving a blood sample is "way too intimate" and wonders whether the league will adhere to its promise to use the blood only for HGH, or surreptitiously use it to gather all sorts of medical information on players.

Teammate Troy Polamalu echoed that concern Monday, wondering whether any additional information gleaned from blood drawn for HGH tests could affect a player's ability to get a new contract.

But the NFL executive who will oversee the league's HGH testing said those fears are unfounded, and pointed out that players already have blood drawn — in a much greater volume — for their league-mandated annual physical exams.

"For this test, you need less than a tablespoon of blood," said Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president for the law and labor policy. He said that there will be a meticulously documented chain of custody with the blood, and that the sample is too small to divide and use for other tests.

Birch said the blood testing is substantially more accurate than the previous method of testing urine, which the league abandoned because of the propensity for false-positive results.

"The test that's in use now is accurate, it's reliable, it's not subject in any way, shape or form to false positives," Birch said of the proposed testing of blood. "We know that because it has been validated internationally, and peer-reviewed.… There's really no question it's reliable."

The detection window, however, is only 36 to 48 hours after use, meaning a player who stops using HGH on a Friday could conceivably pass a Sunday test. Experts say there are soon-to-be-approved testing methods that can detect blood markers of HGH use for a longer period.

The NFL stands to become the first major American sports league that tests blood for HGH, and the league hopes to be ready to start testing at the beginning of the season — including, for the first time, drug testing on game days.

Birch said there will be annual scheduled HGH testing, but also random testing during the season with players being selected by computer draw.

When the NFL and players officially ratified the new collective bargaining agreement Thursday, the 30-day clock started on the HGH clause of the deal. If, for whatever reason, either side were to back out of the blood-testing agreement over that span, the rules would revert to the ones used in 2010 — with no blood testing, but also no independent arbitrator for a player appealing a drug suspension.

"The one thing I think we can all agree on is the integrity of our game," Birch said. "That's why we're taking the steps that we are. We want to be proactive and have the most successful program in sports."

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