This morning’s Congressional hearing in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was titled, “HGH Testing In The NFL: Is the Science Ready?” And by the time committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) finished their opening statements, it seemed they had already answered their own question. Both thought the science was ready. Each panel participant seemed to already hold the same view, and the few members of the committee who bothered to show up and ask questions felt similarly.
Which leads to the question that never truly got answered: Why are we here?
The two-hour hearing bounced between what seemed like attempts by members of Congress to shame the NFL Players Association, which agreed to testing for human growth hormone (HGH) in 2011 but has been reticent to finalize that deal since, into getting its act together and attempts to draw a link between the lack of testing at the professional level and the use of HGH and other performance enhancing drugs in amateur sports.
Which leads to other questions that never truly got answered: Does such a link exist? And, more importantly, does drug testing prevent drug use?
One panel guest, Dr. Linn Goldberg from Oregon Health Sciences University, was skeptical. Goldberg helped design a drug test for high school athletes, but “[a]fter two years” of testing, “no drug or alcohol deterrent effects were present for past month use at any of the four follow-up periods,” according to his prepared testimony. “In addition, athletes at testing schools, had an increase in risk factors for future substance use.” Goldberg cited another study in which researchers found that “drug testing of athletes was not associated with lower illicit drug use among male high school athletes.” Drug use in professional sports also hasn’t dissipated. Positive tests are up since testing began in both the NFL and Major League Baseball, Goldberg said.
Which leads to another obvious question no one in the hearing asked: if high school athletes who are subject to drug tests don’t stop using performance enhancing drugs, and pro athletes who are subject to drug tests don’t stop using performance enhancing drugs, why would drug testing professional athletes make high school athletes stop using performance enhancing drugs?
Goldberg helped design programs known as ATLAS and ATHENA, education programs aimed at reducing drug use among high school athletes. After ATLAS, according to his testimony, athletes reported a 50 percent decline in steroid use. ATHENA, meanwhile, resulted in lower usage rates of steroids and dietary pills. Those programs would seem to go farther in reducing drug use among amateur athletes than simply testing the NFL, and in 2004, Congress authorized ATLAS and ATHENA for federal funding. The money, totaling $15 million a year for six years, was never appropriated. Goldberg made sure to note that fact near the end of his testimony, only to be reminded by Issa that the committee was there to talk about the NFL issue.
And yet, all of the NFL talk was relatively pointless, since there was no one on the panel from the league or the union. Afterward, Adolpho Birch, the league’s senior vice president for law and labor policy, reminded the media that the NFL remains committed to HGH testing. And while the NFLPA has indeed held up testing over scientific concerns, its players ultimately want the tests to occur, as evidenced by quotes from players like London Fletcher and Anthony Gonzalez that were read aloud at the hearing. The NFLPA’s George Atallah, who also spoke to the media, said many of the union’s concerns were about the process and how players who test positive will be handled, not about testing itself.
“We want to be good role models not only for the players who play football but for youth sports throughout the country,” Atallah said. “But along with testing and having a clean game, we also want to set the example of what fair due process is like, for what the actual effectiveness of a program is like, and those are the things we want to set forth as well and things that our players care about.”
So sure, it shouldn’t take two years for the NFL and NFLPA to solve the testing issue. But that’s a dispute over minutiae that is hardly worthy of a Congressional hearing. HGH testing would undoubtedly make the NFL a safer, fairer, more legitimate game. One of the aims of the hearing, though, was to make it clear that NFL testing could make youth sports safer. After two hours of talking, whether that would actually be the case remains clear as mud.
According to NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, who was on the panel and now runs an organization aimed at preventing use of performance enhancing drugs in youth sports, there are 400,000 teens who have experimented with those drugs. Finding out how those drugs are used, how they should be tested, and how their use should be prevented would have made for an interesting and useful hearing. By making that a secondary topic and ignoring basic questions about prevention that could have and should have been asked and answered, Congress instead did what it too often does best: wasted a little of everyone’s time.