Commentary

HGH test not ready for major leagues

Conte's right for once; MLB, NFL players unions shouldn't yield to hysteria

Updated: February 26, 2010, 12:14 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Great dramedy lately from Victor Conte, the former BALCO baddie who is inexorably being recast as a "noted authority" on all things cheatable in sports. Really? I thought he was the guy who engineered some of the most audacious athletic rip-offs of the past half-century.

[+] EnlargeTerry Newton
Hamish Blair/Getty ImagesBritish rugby player Terry Newton did not contest his positive HGH test.

But when Conte speaks to such things as the efficacy of a test designed to stop the short-cutters, the world sits up on its hind legs and takes notice. And when Conte stops just this side of telling the purveyors of that blood test for human growth hormone that their father was a hamster and their mother smelt of elderberries ... well, you get the idea.

Conte was everywhere this week, laying waste to the notion that a single positive outcome -- in this case, of a British rugby player -- could possibly validate the science behind the test that both the NFL and Major League Baseball quickly announced they would closely study and consider implementing. And in interview after interview, the man did not mince words.

"You've caught less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the athletes you've tested," Conte told the Los Angeles Times at one point. "Do you truly believe that's the amount of total users out there?"

Well, no, now that you mention it. In fact, the very test that authorities used to pop poor Brit Terry Newton has been in play for six years already and been imposed upon hundreds of athletes (including Olympians at Athens, Beijing and Vancouver) without once coming up with an official positive result. Confidence is not high.

For that reason, among others, baseball commissioner Bud Selig is already reported to be backing off his initial enthusiasm for the blood test even at the minor league level, where there is no union protection to ward it off.

And for that reason, among many, many, many others, you may expect the Major League Baseball Players Association to stand firm against this one. As little fun as it may be to line up shoulder to shoulder alongside the Victor Contes of the world, this is one of those necessary moments.

For years, baseball's union was run by a man, Don Fehr, who was respected and reviled in roughly equal measure. Fehr and his top assistant, Gene Orza, struck some observers as the sort of water-muddying interlopers who would always stand between the sport and a more placid future -- say, at just about every negotiated turn.

But on matters such as drug testing, Fehr always had the right idea. Before he would even consider asking his union members to agree to urinate in a cup, he wanted to know why it was necessary, what it was meant to accomplish, who wanted it done, who would protect the chain of events, and how anyone could be truly sure about the results. Fehr was constantly and appropriately skeptical of any claim of testing validity that came from the person who was trying to sell something. And he could get very lawyerly and aggressive on the subject of individual rights.

You have to hope that Fehr's successor, Michael Weiner, will remain just as vigilant about -- and resistant to -- the kind of knee-jerking we've seen this week, with pooh-bahs rushing in to declare victory in the HGH wars and insisting the test be put in place here. There may yet be enough science compiled to persuade that the HGH test really works, but you sure can't prove it by what we've seen so far.

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
John Cordes/Icon SMIAfter being named in the Mitchell report, pitcher Andy Pettitte admitted using HGH to recover from an elbow injury.

Newton's positive outcome defeated the odds. For one thing, as the MLBPA explained in its own statement, HGH is said to clear the human system in 18 to 36 hours, meaning you've really got to slip that blood test through a small window of opportunity to catch a thief. For another, most HGH users who are willing to speak on the subject have said they do their cheating out of competition. In other words, if Sluggo Magee wants to beef up in the offseason, he's free to use, unless his union agrees to some type of year-round testing.

Beyond that, "This rugby player did not challenge the scientific validity of this positive HGH blood test in any way," Conte told the New York Daily News (I told you: The man made the media rounds this week). "If an MLB or NFL player ever had a positive HGH blood test, there would be a team of defense lawyers to challenge every step of the scientific as well as legal processes."

Not only is that true, it doesn't come close to being the bad news. As much as sports leagues say they want clean athletes (and multilevel marketable stars), jumping in with a questionable test and trying to force it into the rotation is no way to go.

One of the reasons HGH has been so popular among sports cheats is that it is, in fact, really difficult to test for -- but that isn't baseball's or football's problem. One thing Don Fehr did exceptionally well, during his exceptional run as the head of the baseball union, was refuse to yield to hysteria. A little of that would go a long way here.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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