Former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus joined medical and anti-doping experts to testify Wednesday in a House Oversight Committee hearing on Human Growth Hormone testing in the National Football League.
At issue was an agreement in 2011 between the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the NFL to begin testing for HGH. The NFLPA has stalled the onset of testing by questioning the reliability of the tests.
“I applaud the NFL and the players for taking a bold and decisive position on HGH in their 10 year agreement,” Butkus said at the beginning of his testimony. “Now, let’s get on with it. The HGH testing process is proven to be reliable.”
Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R., Ca.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) said in their opening statements that this has been a “non-partisan” issue, with Cummings emphasizing that there is “no daylight” between his and Issa’s position. They also emphasized the impact that professional sports have on younger athletes at the collegiate level and below.
“We cannot take professional sports in isolation because ultimately it trickles down to the youngest,” Issa said in his opening statement.
The NFLPA has argued that the size and physical exertion of professional football players render the HGH tests inaccurate, and they have requested a population test on NFL players specifically.
Committee members found this argument suspect.
“To me it seems obvious that the players association is trying to run out the clock,” said Cummings. Rep. Lacy Clay (D., Mo.) projected pictures on the screens in the room to illustrate that football players are physically quite similar to other athletes who are now tested for HGH. Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt and wide receiver Randy Moss, for example, have similar physiques, Clay noted.
“Is the science somehow different in a courtroom than it is outside the courtroom?” asked Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.).
No representatives from the NFLPA testified but a spokesman who talked to reporters after the hearing reiterated the union’s concerns.
Issa and Cummings said that they have been personally involved in the negotiations between the NFL and the NFLPA. Issa noted that the union would not even agree to submit to sample collection while the two parties settled their disagreement on the testing procedure.
“None of our work on offense will matter unless we have a strong defense,” Butkus said. “The NFL and Player agreement on HGH is a great playbook. Now let’s get on the field and execute.”
Experts from the U.S. Anti Doping Agency (USADA), the Department of Health and Human Services, Oregon Health and Science University, and the University of Maryland also testified.
Larry Bowers, chief science officer at USADA, said that the HGH test has been the subject of four peer-reviewed publications. He said that the likelihood of a false positive is comparable to being struck by lightning and that of the 14,000 tests that USADA has administered, only 11 have come back positive. Eight of the eleven have admitted to using HGH and the other three are in arbitration.
The witnesses also raised other concerns.
“Teens don’t always respond to adult messages as they’re intended,” said Linn Goldberg, head of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University.
He noted that testing for HGH in the NFL could imply that HGH works and that many NFL players are using it. He supported testing but said, “Testing elite athletes will not prevent drug use among teens.”
Others bemoaned pressure on kids to succeed. “We are addicted in our society. We have an addiction to winning, to winning at all costs,” said Mike Gimbel, the director of “Powered by Me!,” an anti-doping program at the University of Maryland.
Hall of Famer Butkus agreed with Gimbel’s sentiment.
“I’m talking to a 10 year old kid and the mother is saying, ‘Ask him how to be a pro. Ask him what to eat.’ And I turn to her, and I say, ‘Ma’am, I don’t want to bust your bubble here, but little Johnny here has about one chance in a million to make it to the pros. Why don’t you just let him play for fun?’”