NFL delay over HGH tests: Unacceptable

We are now halfway through the 2011 NFL season, and the league and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) remain at an impasse with regard to the commencement of testing for human growth hormone (HGH). While the two sides announced an agreement to begin testing earlier this year, they remain bogged down over technical disagreements on the procedures for the test. This impasse should not continue.

HGH is an illegal performance-enhancing drug. Athletes take HGH in hopes that it will allow them to work out longer and heal faster. How much HGH improves performance is subject to debate, but what is certain is that athletes who use HGH are putting their health at risk. HGH abuse can cause diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, hypertension, muscle and joint disorders, and even cancer.

While steroid use is detectable through urine tests, HGH is undetectable through the drug tests currently administered by the NFL. When former Sen. George Mitchell investigated performance-enhancing drug use in Major League Baseball, he found that as the league cracked down on steroids, HGH use increased because players could use it without fear of detection. Observers of the NFL believe HGH is now the drug of choice for pro football players. Former NFL player and television commentator Boomer Esiason recently said that many believe at least 20 percent of players are using it.

To stop abuse of HGH, professional sports need to create a disincentive for its use. That means leagues need to start testing. This requires a small blood sample, which is then evaluated through an "isoform" test to determine if the HGH in an athlete's body is naturally occurring or the result of an injection of the synthetic form of the drug. The test is approved and used by the World Anti-Doping Agency and has been used successfully for the Olympics and for athletes playing minor league baseball.

In August, the NFL and NFLPA made a breakthrough announcement: HGH testing had been incorporated into the new NFL collective bargaining agreement. It was the first time that a major U.S. professional sports league and a players' union reached an agreement on HGH testing. In testimony before Congress in 2005, the NFL and NFLPA officials testified proudly about the toughness of their drug testing program. The HGH agreement seemed to embody football's commitment to be the leader in developing strong performance-enhancing drug policies.

Regrettably, the NFLPA now appears to be backing away from its commitment. According to the players union, there are questions about the scientific validity of HGH tests. But according to virtually every other expert, the HGH test used by the Olympics is valid and accurate. Earlier this month, a group of leading anti-doping scientists and lab directors wrote that "the test itself is scientifically accepted and has undergone extensive evaluation." A second group of experts wrote that "the current HGH test is safe, scientifically reliable, and appropriate for use in professional sports leagues. There is no scientific question about its validity."

The players union's delaying tactics call its own motivations into question. According to Mr. Esiason, "the union is backing off because they have players guilty of using this substance." I hope that is not the case.

Last month, as the impasse between the two organizations continued, my colleagues and I urged the Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings. These hearings would allow us to hear from top scientists about the validity of HGH testing and from the NFL and NFLPA about the extent of HGH use in the league and their plans for testing. We could also explore whether legislation is necessary.

My hope is that the league and union will resolve their differences and initiate testing without congressional intervention. I have also asked Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to begin HGH testing, and hope they will agree to do so as part of their new collective bargaining agreement.

But if they fail, there is a valid and important role for Congress. As we learned when we held hearings into baseball's steroid era, the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs poses a threat to the players who take them and puts those who do not at an unfair disadvantage. Worst of all, the perception that the pros use illegal performance-enhancing drugs has a profound impact on the millions of teenage athletes who aspire to be like them.

I have commended the NFL and NFLPA in the past for their commitment to eradicating performance-enhancing drugs from professional football. That commitment is now facing its most serious test. I urge both organizations to rise to the challenge and begin testing for HGH without delay.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., is the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.