23 January 2012

When lawyers become (spin) doctors

Former WADA President Richard W. Pound refutes the claims of the NFLPA's lawyers that the test for hGH is unreliable and describes their approach as classic delaying tactics.


Let’s look at some facts. There is known and suspected use of human growth hormone (hGH) in professional football. The effect of this use is performance-enhancement. Using artificial hGH is contrary to the National Football League (NFL) rules and those of practically every serious sporting organization in the world.

Athletes who use hGH for performance enhancement are cheaters – cheating their fellow competitors, and the public, which is entitled to watch and support sport played in accordance with agreed-upon rules.

The NFL has finally agreed to test for hGH, more as a result of congressional pressure than from a genuine conviction that its sport should be clean. The NFL players have bowed to the same pressures and agreed – reluctantly - to be tested for hGH.

Well, you say, it may not have been a happy beginning, but at least there’s a happy ending…

Not so fast.

Even more resourceful off the field than on it, the players, acting through their union, the NFLPA, have turned to their ubiquitous lawyers to throw as much sand as money can buy into the gears of an effective testing program.

So, the lawyers, in a feat of self-generated alchemy, have turned themselves into scientists and now spout supposedly principled concerns about the reliability of scientific tests for hGH.

The hGH tests were approved in 2004, after several years of study and experiment, by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the independent international body consisting of government and sports representatives, responsible for the coordination and monitoring of the worldwide fight against doping in sport.

Injected hGH form creates an easily identifiable massive ratio of the injected hGH form in relation to normally occurring hGH secretions. The absolute amount of hGH present in the body is irrelevant. What counts for anti-doping testing is the ratio of injected hGH form to hGH forms normally secreted by the body. It is as simple as that.

The knowledgeable scientific community is satisfied with the reliability of the hGH tests. WADA does not approve anti-doping tests until there is consensus among experts in the particular field that the tests are scientifically reliable and replicable. No one wants any athlete to be sanctioned on the basis of a false positive test.

Predictably, however, there are some who do not allow lack of familiarity with the cutting edge of the field get in the way of trying to cast doubt on a test which they cannot evaluate. The lawyers, equally predictably, flock to the pseudo-science like ants to a picnic.

The lawyers’ job, on this occasion, is to maintain the apparent willingness of the players (some of whom continue to use hGH as the charade plays out) to be tested for it, without actually permitting testing to occur, in the guise of expressed concerns regarding the scientific reliability of the tests.

They ask theatrical “questions” to which they have already received answers. They speculate that the data on which the tests were developed may not be appropriate for tests on NFL players – as if the nature of the physical skill sets in professional football is foreign to all other forms of athletic endeavour.

This is not rocket science.

The physical demands of football players do not differ appreciably from those in all sorts of other sport activities. The NFL players run, they throw, they catch, they hit. They are not from a different planet. More important, hGH ratios are consistent among athletes of different size, weight and origin. So, no matter how thin the lawyers try to slice it, what they say remains baloney.

The lawyers are wordsmiths, some of them even skilled wordsmiths. They are also advocates, working to achieve the NFLPA’s objectives.  Their utterances cannot be separated from the cause of their clients.

Some of their clients evidently do not want to be tested. It is remarkable how the discussion around the scientific reliability of hGH testing has been allowed to be managed by lawyers, not scientists.

No knowledgeable scientist has asserted, on behalf of the NFLPA, that the hGH tests are unreliable. No doubt there is an obvious reason for this.

It is time to move beyond the classic legal tactics of delay, delay, delay and to get on with testing for hGH.

It is time to stop the puerile nonsense of lawyers pretending to know more about the science than the scientists themselves.

It is time for the public at large to recognize that it is being manipulated as part of the effort to avoid testing for performance-enhancing substances.

Just because there is a smooth-talking effort to get you to buy the Brooklyn Bridge, there is no reason for you to be a buyer.

If the NFL players claim they are drug-free, they should be ready to prove it and stop hiding behind phoney claims that good science is bad science.