The National Basketball Association and its players may not include blood tests for human growth hormone as they race to finish a labor contract in time to start the season on Dec. 25.
Squeezed by the time constraints of ratifying its agreement and shaped by the belief that such exams are unwarranted, the league and the National Basketball Players Association have made HGH testing a “B-list” issue that may be added later, according to Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School.
That’s angered the top U.S. sports drug fighter, who said a similar delay has cost the National Football League almost a full season of testing for the banned muscle builder. Major League Baseball last month announced a five-year labor deal that includes blood tests for HGH.
“It shouldn’t be a secondary issue,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “If you care about the integrity of competition and the rights of clean athletes, it ought to be a fundamental issue that’s done in the first instance.”
Billy Hunter, the players association executive director, declined a request to talk about the HGH issue heading into negotiations on Dec. 2. Dan Wasserman, a spokesman for the NBPA, declined to comment in a telephone interview.
“It has always been a significant subject of collective bargaining, and the details are currently being negotiated,” Mike Bass, a spokesman for the NBA, said in an e-mail yesterday.
After reaching an agreement in principle on a contract to end a season-shortening lockout and settle multiple lawsuits, the NBA and its players began negotiating non-economic issues such as drug testing.
The NFL, the most-watched U.S. professional sport with more than $9 billion in annual revenue, also included HGH blood testing as part of an August labor contract, though the NFL Players Association has delayed its implementation while disputing the program details.
USADA, which oversees drug testing of American Olympic sports from its Colorado Springs, Colorado, headquarters, hasn’t heard from either the NBA or its union regarding HGH testing, Tygart said.
USA Basketball’s men’s team, made up of NBA players, has been subject to USADA’s full drug-testing program since 2002 and was blood tested for HGH since before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
“The players don’t have a problem with it and support it so long as they know the players they are competing against are held to the same standards,” Tygart said in a telephone interview. “If you are in a sport where they don’t test blood, you are being given a license to use HGH and cheat your fellow competitors.”
The NBA and the players agreed in principle on a labor deal on Nov. 26, with plans to complete the agreement and open training camps Dec. 9, leaving enough time to start the 66-game season by the Christmas Day holiday.
“A B-list issue like drug testing probably needs more time than the amount of time that they have,” McCann said in a telephone interview. “Unless they’ve talked about these issues much more than we know of, it’s going to be tough to get through complicated changes to the drug-testing policy.”
The two sides would be better off negotiating changes to the drug policy later and including them as an attachment to the collective bargaining agreement in coming months or at season’s end, McCann said.
“It ensures the players that they don’t agree to something -- just to have a season -- that they later regret,” McCann said.
The NFL and its players’ association agreed to include HGH testing in last-minute discussions that delayed voting on ratification of its labor deal. The NFL’s contract states a “goal of beginning testing by the first week of the regular season.” The season began Sept. 8 and has four weeks left before the playoffs.
The NFL delays have led to criticism by members of the U.S. Congress and the World Anti-Doping Association.
Whether the NBA and its players are interested in HGH testing is in doubt. Both Hunter and NBA Commissioner David Stern said at a 2008 congressional hearing on drugs in sports that they opposed blood tests for players.
Stern suggested that Congress work to have a reliable urine test developed “rather than requiring players to go through blood tests, needles and the things that might be of valid concern.”
Hunter said as recently as last month that his players were tested enough in a league that doesn’t have a performance- enhancing drug problem, and that they shouldn’t be subjected to blood testing.
“It’s a totally self-serving statement that’s completely out of touch with today’s win-at-all-cost sports culture,” Tygart said. “It’s shockingly disappointing to hear that from someone who supposedly is in a position to protect the health and safety of players.”
Major League Baseball, which uncovered dozens of performance-enhancing drug violations during the last decade, began HGH testing in its minor leagues in 2010. Former New York Mets first baseman Mike Jacobs became the first baseball player to fail an HGH test, receiving a 50-game ban in August. There also have been positive HGH tests in cycling and rugby in recent years.
“If you run, if you sweat, if you lift weights in preparation for a long season, if you do any aerobic or anaerobic activity in your sport, HGH can be a powerful but also dangerous performance-enhancing drug,” Tygart said.
The recent steps taken by the other leagues to strengthen HGH testing might make it easier for the NBA to sell changes to its players, said McCann.
“No players association wants to be the first to agree to a change in the way players are treated,” McCann said. “That gives the owners more authority over them. The NFL players did that, opening the door for other associations to not look as if they’re giving up a lot by agreeing to HGH testing.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com.