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There Will Be Blood: The Broncos Face a New Future in Drug Testing

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There is some football news today (for a change) and even though it is not the news we are hoping for, it still could improve the game and affect the Denver Broncos. A new future in drug testing is on the horizon for the NFL and even though the league has been envisioning it for a few years, the time to enact it is now, so it may be included in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The New York Times reported this morning that the NFL is considering using the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to supervise the testing for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in NFL players, if the courts force the owners to end the lockout and put into effect rules for operating the league this season.

This should be not be viewed as an idle threat. The League has wanted a more stringent and effective evaluation for PED's, particularly Human Growth Hormone, or hGH. The NFL currently has no test for hGH. In fact, no U.S. pro sports league uses blood testing or tests for hGH. 

The NFL proposed testing for human growth hormone in 2010, after it was announced that a British rugby player became the first athlete suspended after testing positive for hGH. There is also evidence that the substance is in use today in the NFL. Two former Washington Redskins players, offensive tackle Jon Jansen and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield told HBO in September 2006 that "maybe 15-20%" of NFL players used PED's and use was "on the rise" because of use of hGH that was going undetected. Stubblefield said he believed at least 30% of the players in the league used hGH. Others in the league have said they don't believe the use of hGH by NFL players is that extensive.

Former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended for the first 4 games of the 2007 season after law enforcement notified the NFL he had received shipments of hGH. At the time of the suspension, reported that Harrison admitted he obtained hGH. So unless Harrison was Barry Bonds' Mule, that incident is proof enough that the League must act to keep football from turning into the joke that Major League Baseball has become. 

The first test for hGH was introduced at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in the form of a blood test. Blood testing has been opposed by NFL players as long ago as when Gene Upshaw led the NFLPA, because it was deemed too invasive. Upshaw did say  in 2008, that when a urine test is developed for hGH, the players would consent to taking it.  


"We all know there is no reliable test for hGH," Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association said Thursday at the union's Super Bowl news conference. "Until a test is developed for hGH, there's really not an awful lot to talk about. And when that test is developed, we really believe it should be a urine test. No one is interested in a blood test. We got a lot of big tough guys, but they don't even like to be pricked on the finger to give blood."


The other reason was that the test only had a 48-hour window of detection. Athletes could "use" during the off-season, where most of their strength and endurance training takes place and stop shortly before any test was administered. In 2005, the NFL tripled the amount of off-season random drug tests from two to a maximum of six. That still left a gaping window though.

In June, 2010, a new test  was unveiled that could increase chances of revealing hGH usage. A bio-markers test, which "scans the blood for chemicals the body produces after hGH use, which are detectable for up to two weeks." This test is definitely an improvement over the current isoform test, an exam that looks for synthetic hGH.

"In a perfect world, a urine test would be far easier for us to deal with and administer than a blood test," said NFL executive Adolpho Birch, who supervises the league's drug policy. "The problem is, we thought there was some chance a urine test could be developed. That's increasingly looking less likely. The practical reality is, we need to focus on a test that works, and the test that works is blood." Even the CFL has adopted the blood test into it's Anti-Doping policy. If the Canadians can do it, why can't the NFL?

From a USA Today article in July 2008:

A team of scientists from the USA and Italy claimed to have developed a urine test that detects hGH. Governing bodies and U.S. pro leagues have long sought a test that doesn't require blood to detect hGH, a synthetic hormone that aids in recovery and bolsters muscle growth. Virginia-based Ceres Nanosciences, partnered with George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Italy's Istituto Superiore di Sanità. Ceres has licensed three patents from George Mason in what it calls "Nanotrap" technology.

Their researchers developed a particle about one-tenth the size of a red blood cell that attracts, traps and protects hGH molecules, according to George Mason research professor Alessandra Luchini. The particles surround nearly 100% of the hGH molecules and act as an amplifier, so available testing equipment can detect the synthetic hormone.

The test can detect hGH two weeks after an athlete has last used it. Current blood screening for hGH, set to be used again at the Beijing Olympics, can identify hGH 24-48 hours after an athlete's last use.


They were supposed to have the test on the market within six months, but funding fell short. Ceres had obtained a $65,000 grant from USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) to fund their research towards a urine test for HGH. They were hoping to get a bigger boost from the Partnership for Clean Competition (PCC), a collaborative founded in 2008 by the NFL, Major League Baseball, USADA and the U.S. Olympic Committee that has provided $1.3 million in grants for promising anti-doping research over the last two years.     
However, PCC has their own agenda and with the newer blood test, the funds that Ceres had hoped for went down the drain. We may not see a valid urine test for a few more years because of it. Coupled with the urgency to implement hGH testing into the next CBA and the urine test may just go down the toilet too.   

If WADA gets to run the NFL's PED testing, any alleged cheaters will be vetted. The players would also be under the World Anti-Doping Code. 

The idea of a blood test will be met with as much resistance now as it was in 2008, but with the courts involved, the players (in my opinion) can't put up as much of a fight without the NFLPA to back them up. The owners have a very good chance of ensuring this outcome just because it shows they have the players' safety in mind.

In other words, There Will Be Blood!