CHICAGO -- On a brisk and overcast day here, the biggest clouds scudding by the downtown hotel -- where officials convened principally to discuss non-football issues such as the NFL's new network and the league trust fund -- concerned THG, the designer steroid that one team owner candidly acknowledged "has everyone scared [spitless]."
Most owners allowed they know little about tetrahydrogestrinone, which on Tuesday was ruled a drug, not a supplement, by the Food and Drug Administration. What owners and other club officials do know, however, is that THG could pose a significant problem for the league in general and, more specifically, for their individual franchises.
"I really don't know much about it," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "But I do know that, from what little I have heard so far, it's clearly dangerous. And I know that, every time one of these things comes up, we all hold our breath a little bit."
Noting, deservedly, that it has been at the forefront of all professional sports in terms of vigilance, the NFL announced last week that it will begin testing even some previously screened urine samples for THG, a drug that previously had been undetectable.
But on Wednesday, Harold Henderson, chairman of the league's Management Council, was purposely coy when asked whether such testing had commenced. Even though THG is not specifically cited under the league's steroid abuse policy, the NFL contends that it falls under a wide and encompassing purview that relates to all steroids in general. Thus, the NFL feels, it can initiate testing at any time.
Oakland Raiders defensive end Trace Armstrong, who is president of the NFL Players Association, said he does not believe retro-testing can be conducted because some samples have been destroyed, thus making testing inequitable. Later in the day, NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said that Armstrong's stance was erroneous.
The league is in discussions with NFLPA officials about the procedures for new testing and the review of existing samples. The NFL never tested for THG before because it didn't know it existed, officials said. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he trusts that Henderson and Upshaw will "resolve the issue in a manner that is fair and balanced."
U.S. drug officials only learned of THG over the summer, when an unidentified but concerned coach turned over a syringe containing the substance. A test subsequently was created and, to date, four U.S. track athletes allegedly have tested positive.
Dozens of athletes, including at least 10 current NFL players, have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a California laboratory that has supplied nutritional supplements. Seven of the 10 players subpoenaed to this point are with the Oakland Raiders.
While little is known about THG's specific effects, its close chemical similarity to some other well-known steroids means that it poses the same risks. Although there seem to be more questions than answers, at least right now, the one certainty is that the NFL is ready to take an aggressive approach in identifying any THG users in its player ranks.
The NFL steroid abuse policy, unlike the substance abuse policy, stipulates a four-game suspension without pay for a first-time offender. In the substance abuse policy, a first-time positive test results in counseling. Players are suspended only after repeat violations. The rationale is that steroid use can lead to a competitive on-field advantage for the players who use the artificial components.
But with the re-testing of existing samples, as the NFL begins to check on possible THG users, the league faces a rather knotty problem: Players who were "clean" even a few months ago, under previous procedures, might now be red-flagged for THG. Any player who tests positive will face suspension in 2003, which presents the possibility that teams might be affected during the playoff drive.
Beyond the normal appeals process, any player testing positive won't have much recourse and, Henderson emphasized, there will be no acceptable excuses. The NFL will not view with sympathy any player who suggests he wasn't aware of the potential threat THG posed, Henderson said in citing the league's ongoing zero-tolerance policy.
"They claim [ignorance] any time there is a positive steroid test," Henderson said. "That's always the story. But it is a strict liability policy. You're responsible for what goes into your body, the players have been told that time and again, and they know it. We couldn't do anything about THG before because it was below the radar screen ... but we feel that we are taking the appropriate steps now that we're aware of it. What would be a rationale for delaying [tests] now that we know about it?"
A few head coaches surveyed on THG, all of whom spoke not for attribution, allowed that they expect some suspensions before the end of the 2003 season.
Henderson presented the owners with a brief background synopsis on THG and what the league is doing as it moves forward in policing the steroid. But owners and other club officials conceded that, because the learning curve on THG is just beginning, they are not up to speed on it. Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay noted that he has read more about THG in recent media reports than he has heard about it from the league to this point, but that is about to change, given that the NFL has opted to test for it.
Like McKay and others here for the meeting, San Francisco owner John York said that, as has been the case with other drug- and steroid-related issues, he has consulted with his training staff. He noted that no 49ers players have been subpoenaed and that, in speaking with veterans, many have said they weren't aware of THG's existence.
But sounding a general cautionary note, York agreed that even if the NFL or some other leagues are successful in identifying THG users, there will be other risks in time.
"I think we'd all be naive to think that, if it's not THG, it won't be something else down the line," York said. "Obviously, we have to stay on top of this, for our players and for our league. We've taken the lead so far, among all sports, in dealing with these things. And we need to continue to do that."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.