As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, the NFL will become the first major sports league to test at its highest level for HGH. (In 2010 baseball instituted testing in the minors.) With the support of both NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and union executive director DeMaurice Smith, all players will be tested once annually with the possibility of additional random tests, and testing could begin by the first week of the regular season. The timing could not be better.
A test for synthetic HGH in sports was first used, sparingly, at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. But it did not turn up a single positive result, nor did it in more than a thousand tests in three subsequent Olympics. The test was able to catch doping only within hours of injection. But beginning with British rugby player Terry Newton's positive result in February 2010, seven athletes worldwide have now tested positive for HGH. The difference is that by early '10, antidoping scientists had compiled enough data to understand with greater precision the threshold that should trigger a positive.
Naturally produced HGH comes in two main forms, or "isoforms," each with a different weight. Because synthetic HGH comes exclusively in one of those weights, it upsets the ratio of the isoforms in the body, and that unusual ratio is the signature of doping. Before last year an athlete had to have a ratio that was off by sixfold in order to test positive. With better data on the normal human range, scientists have cut in half the ratio that triggers a positive, making the test more sensitive and extending the window to catch a cheater by a day or two.
The question now is whether NFL testing will be truly random and unannounced. "If you don't blood test, you essentially give players a license to use HGH," says Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "To have a deterrent effect, athletes have to have a real risk of being caught."