On Thursday, Major League Baseball announced that it will test minor league players who are not on an MLB 40-man roster for synthetic human growth hormone (HGH), effective immediately. I have some pretty strong opinions about this matter, which I won't directly go into here. More importantly, I have a lot of questions.
Before I get started, I want to make some things perfectly clear:
- I am not a medical, legal, or contract expert. My statements come only from my head, with very little expertise to back them up.
- I did not have time to thoroughly research this topic. I've heard things on talk radio and I've read a small sampling of blog posts and main-street-media articles (which all pretty much site the same sources). Additionally, I do not have access to experts who can answer these questions or back up these statement. If anything in here seem naive, it's because it is.
- I completely understand that HGH is a banned substance. I feel that if anyone ever gets caught taking HGH, he should get in trouble.
- I do not condone any player taking any banned substances for any reason without clearing it through the league first.
- I'm not looking to debate the topic of steroid use in baseball. Nor am I looking to debate the topic of drug testing. I, however, feel that the players deserve to have some questions answered before this proceeds.
- Even though it may seem like it, I'm not trying to be sassy or sarcastic. These are real questions I have and would like real answers.
Testing for HGH is so controversial because it requires blood to be drawn. All other drug screening is done with urine testing. MLB is testing only minor leaguers because they're not members of the players' union and not covered by collective bargaining.
This is a very cutting edge move by MLB; it is the first professional sport organization in the US to implement it. However, before everyone salutes Bud Selig for this forward-looking approach, I think the players, and the public to some extent, deserve to fully understand the risks, rewards, consequences, and science behind this plan.
Here are my questions:
- Why now, in the middle of the season? Testing during Spring Training makes so much more sense. Do they think they're on to something?
- Why isn't it allowed in the current collective bargaining agreement? Is it because it's invasive? Is it because they have no independent research to validate the procedures and outcomes? There must be some reason the players' union balked at it before. Are they likely to balk at it again?
- Does taking HGH really enhance performance? When Andy Pettitte admitted to using HGH, he claimed it was so that he could heal faster, not to improve his skills. In fact, everything I've heard about HGH said that it doesn't enhance performance at all. Are minor leaguers, who are generally young and heal well naturally, taking a lot of HGH?
- Is HGH use really a problem, especially in the minors? Will Carroll, who writes for Baseball Prospectus and tweets as @injuryexpert, wrote in his personal blog that he doubts many minor leaguers have the financial or logistic means to purchase, store, and take HGH. Will very many of these guys test positive? Will it be worth the effort?
- What is the detection period of HGH? I don't think anyone really knows. I've heard that the time takes the body to metabolize it is anywhere from a few hours to two weeks, although most of the stuff I've read claims it's closer to 36 to 48 hours. How fast after a guy takes HGH can a test be successful?
- Is the test reliable? I've read a few articles that said the HGH test isn't all that accurate; it's prone to false-positives. What happens in those cases? If someone tests positive, and the hormone really metabolizes in 36-48 hours, is there time to retest to rule out a false-positive?
- Will the players be protected from injury? I give blood from time to time, and I have blood work done every three months, so I know that drawing blood is pretty safe. However, there are some cases where veins "roll" and it's nearly impossible to draw blood without several pokings which get quite painful (this happens to my son, so I've seen it first-hand). And there's the occasional "poke-through" where the needle pierces completely through the vein and leaves a bruise -- it's minor, but it can hurt.
- Are there civil liberties implications? Urine can be considered waste, so there are no rights against testing it. However, players are still using their blood until it gets drawn. Can they really perform drug testing using an invasive procedure without probable cause? The minor-league contract may state that they can, so I don't know. But I'm willing to bet there are some savvy lawyers ready to start researching this.
- Why so secretive? A number of the articles I've read state that the overseers of the test, the World Anti-Doping Agency, has not revealed their data. Therefore, it can't be verified by independent research. Which could be a sticking point with the players' union if MLB wants to move forward with testing of major leaguers.