The National Football League earned the support of anti-doping experts worldwide when it announced under its new labor agreement that it will become the nation's first professional sports league to blood-test players for human growth hormone (hGH).
As part of the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement with the NFL players union, NFL players would face unlimited unannounced blood tests for hGH -- a naturally-occurring performance enhancer used to build stronger muscles and stave off training fatigue.
Under the terms of the labor agreement, the league must still meet with the players to determine the specific testing guidelines. But as long as players and team owners can agree on the details of the testing and appeals process, the screening program will begin Sept. 8.
The move has been applauded by the World Anti-Doping Agency as a positive development in the fight against doping in sport.
"It is vital that hGH testing is increased and the NFL's example will hopefully encourage other sports federations to follow suit," World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman said in a statement.
Because it's a natural compound, hGH is harder to detect than other performance enhancing drugs like steroids. But a blood test introduced at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens hones in on subtle differences between the body's own hormone and the injectable version.
First-time offenders would face a four-game suspension without pay, according to a league spokesman -- the same punishment endured by steroid abusers.
Proponents hope the move will send a message to athletes in other major and minor leagues, and even little leagues, that doping doesn't pay.
"I think it's a great first step for a professional organization to take a stand and say, 'We want to do the right thing and not have our athletes taking this,'" said Dr. Alex Diamond, a sports medicine doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "Their influence on young athletes carries a lot more weight than what a doctor or parent has to say."
Produced by the pea-sized pituitary gland deep inside the brain, hGH stimulates the growth of muscles, bones and organs during development. But in adulthood, hormone production usually tapers off, preventing dangerous overgrowth of the heart, liver and other organs. Using hGH to bulk up is not only unethical, Diamond said, it's dangerous.
"The side effects are what we worry about," said Diamond, describing the life-threatening enlargement of the heart and the disfiguring growth of hands and facial features associated with hGH abuse. "Getting rid of hGH will not only benefit the sport, but also the athletes in general and their overall health."
Most of the hGH testing would be random and unannounced, according to a league spokesman.
"The randomness is key because a lot of the athletes will take it in the off season to allow them to train," said Diamond, explaining the narrow 72-hour time window of hGH detection. "Because short time frame, if an athlete knows when the test is going to be they can adapt their injection schedule."
Random hGH screening would be unlimited throughout the season, but would be limited to six tests during the offseason, according to a league spokesman.
The World Anti-Doping Agency's Howman praised NFL players for accepting hGH screening as part of the collective bargain, calling it "a strong indication that the players are prepared to take responsibility, that they understand hGH must be eradicated from their sport."
The NFL might be the first professional sports organization to introduce hGH testing, but other leagues are cracking down on emerging doping trends. Major League Baseball recently issued a warning to major and minor league players to lay off the deer antler spray -- a chemical derived from immature deer antlers that boosts the level of hGH in the body.