HGH Testing Debate and The NFL: Author Interview
Posted Wednesday, November 2, 2011
I recently enjoyed answering questions from Stefan Fatsis, of Slate, in an email Q&A with the journalist and author, his queries regarding the current NFL debate over HGH testing. The text of our prepared discourse follows here. Meanwhile, follow Stefan on his football-season co-op with Deadspin writers, as they debate the issues in NFL roundtable; listen for him on NPR, for sports comments and reports; and check out Stefan’s acclaimed book A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, recounting his Plimptonian quest as kicker for the Denver Broncos. Matt Chaney
Fatsis: Q. In layman's terms, why do you believe the WADA HGH test that the NFL is pushing is “suspect”?
Chaney: Well, suspicion begins on the real problem for HGH blood testing as it stands today: The fact that American medicine and credible medical bodies abroad have yet to see a democratic, scientific, straight-up independent peer review of this purported breakthrough in doping detection—a WADA scientist’s patented immunoassay for GH-isoform ratios in human blood—or this potential goldmine “test” that generates from closed European research and secretive WADA engineers who remain virtually inaccessible.
Even WADA associates like HGH-testing pioneer Dr. Peter Sonksen, London, hardly know what’s up. Sonksen, creator of the GH-biomarker test that is open to independent review but WADA yet avoids, told me he hasn’t associated with former colleague Dr. Christian Strasburger since about 1999. Sometime around the Sydney Olympics, Strasburger, having become a full-time scientist of WADA, patented the assay for GH isomers. From the start, Sonksen says, Strasburger’s insurmountable problem has been a detection window of only hours, requiring drug informants and Draconian “whereabouts” tracking of athletes to typically log a positive result for use of bio-cloned or recombinant human growth hormone. “You have to take a blood sample within 24 hours of their injecting it,” Sonksen told me.
Dr. Don Catlin, endocrinologist and our foremost American expert on anti-doping methodology and tools, can’t get access to Strasburger and the in-house WADA studies allegedly establishing validity and reliability of the GH-isoform test. WADA officials in Canada say to just trust them, but Catlin doesn’t yet in America. “You’ve got to have hard-core evidence…,” Catlin told me. “ ‘Here’s the study. Here’s what we did. Here’s what we found. Here’s the [data on] false-positive [results]. Here’s the false-negative.’ ”
Catlin and Sonksen say WADA would likely be challenged to prove validity and reliability of Strasburger’s test in American trial court—and the anti-doping agencies know it. Sonksen is a longtime associate of WADA and the IOC, a charter member of the anti-doping establishment worldwide, yet he hammers anti-doping officials and their disregard for transparent scientific protocol: “I think there’s a certain fear among the, ah, [WADA] politicians that if it comes to a case in court [against the GH-isoform], they won’t win it,” Sonksen told me.
Q. Can every scientist drafted to work for WADA (or USADA) be in the bag somehow, or simply be willing to compromise scientific standards? Why, given the legitimate public concern and outcry over doping in sports, would they move forward with an unreliable test or tests?
You kiddin’ me? These are sports medicine people—or else they’re “independent scientists” directly hired, paid, funded, whatever, by the anti-doping agencies and sports organizations. Do you think they have a contract or association with powerful sport and anti-doping if they speak sensibly, telling us anti-doping will never turn back rampant drug use among athletes? These are the same type of people who tell us we can properly detect and manage football’s inherent brain injuries through “concussion testing.”
So-called scientists and doctors have pandered to politics of anti-doping and sport since the 1980s at least in America. The NFL’s hireling or associate “experts” have become dime a dozen, selling us their false hopes for preventing systemic drug use and brutality. These people come from everywhere anymore, and shamelessly. And if you don’t play ball, like Catlin won’t, then you scrounge for funding in your research, like he does now. Or you’re just a sports idiot with a doctorate who wants to believe the complex, irreversible problems of athletics can be fixed. And dumb media parrot the mere talk. It’s all become a pathetic joke, an American travesty of truth and public perception.
And the public does not care about doping in sport, especially American football, the sport perhaps most conducive to drug use on earth, from steroids and Growth to speed and painkillers.
The moral bleating of grandstanding politicians and ill-informed media does not qualify as public outcry. We bitch as a public about gas prices, not drugs in our football.
Q. If you were the NFL and the players union, what would you do on this matter? Wait for a test? Or is testing, for HGH anyway, futile and beside the point?
All of the silliness can end immediately if WADA and the NFL will do what the players and union demand: Practice simple American scientific transparency so Dr. Stasburger’s HGH test for WADA can be independently vetted for validity and reliability—or not.
Catlin and Sonksen, for example, both make their validating research available for peer review, including to scientists of player unions. The documents of Sonksen’s GH-biomarker and Catlin’s carbon-isotope ratio scan for synthetic testosterone are available for peer analysis and replication. Any American worker would demand as much for undergoing a blood test, especially if a positive result meant loss of work and pay.
All that said, yes and repeating, I think anti-doping as it stands for now and in the foreseeable future is hopeless for turning back muscle doping in American football. The historical and contemporary evidence is clearly laid out in my 2009 book, Spiral of Denial. If I were a football player today, for example, especially of the NFL, I would be utterly confident in beating Catlin’s CIR and I would find the ways to beat Sonksen’s biomarker, were it deployed by WADA and the league. Strasburger’s isoform would be of non-consequence for stopping my HGH use, and if chopsticks ever caught a fly in me, so to speak, I would crush that test in trial court.
Q. Where do you stand on the efficacy of HGH? The reliability of existing tests aside, should sports organizations even bother testing for it?
Clinical studies have found rHGH injections can change fat to muscle, among some measurable effects, but my belief of the drug’s performance-enhancing nature is based on anecdotal evidence offered by users I’ve known and in published accounts. College and pro athletes testify of recuperative effects for injecting bio-tech growth hormone while weightlifters and football players say the substance builds mass when used in complement with androgenic chemicals, synthetic testosterone and/or anabolic steroids. Also note the bio-tech GH analogues available today, such as IGF-1 and growth-hormone-releasing peptides, which athletes and bodybuilders readily use and the anti-doping agencies are hopeless to fight.
Q. Given your anecdotal conclusions that HGH has some effects, do you believe it would be good to remove the drug from football were it possible?
Absolutely, prevention of synthetic performance-enhancing substances is my foremost goal, which is often lost, about me, in my points on lousy testing to-date and in the foreseeable future.
Listen, I’ve waited for effective anti-doping in football since about 1980, when I seriously wanted to try college football and was seriously afraid of all the drug-using players in the game by then, covering the big-school rosters in particular.
The problem, testing of blood or urine isn’t working, isn’t close to working, and will surely never work, and the people selling this crap know that! But you think some yak from WADA or USADA will admit as much, still intending to hold his or her job?
Now, to credit of such people, they’re told to stop a Death Star and given a pop gun. The anti-doping efforts, from teen studies to testing, have never had a chance for pitiful funding to start, as Dr. Catlin can attest, as Penn State epidemiologist Charles Yesalis can attest, along with so many other researchers and officials. We haven’t seen the billions of dollars needed in mere startup for anti-doping, just to plausibly develop and deploy some of these ideas for success or failure. As we stand, anti-doping operates on about $300 million to $400 million annually, U.S. dollars, covering research and development to detection applications, worldwide.
Q. And one non-HGH question: Briefly tell me your backstory again. How'd you get so involved in the issue? And why does it matter so much to you?
I don’t know why I’m still around the football issues of doping and injuries, to be frank, and I likely won’t be much longer. I’m 51 with a family and don’t get paid or funded by anyone, and my former vocation of sportswriting is no help; American football’s partner media want little to do with my work, from TV networks down to the smallest newspapers. Sales of my book are horrendous. I drive old cars, wear old clothes and clip coupons. My only source of income presently is kitchen jobs.
What sort of thrust me here today is my background as an athlete and coach. I injected synthetic testosterone to gain size and power as a college football player, at Southeast Missouri State in 1982, and later as a student coach I helped a player obtain testosterone—and really didn’t want to commit any of the acts. I felt I had to for remaining in football.
Within a few years, as a sportswriter, I decided that any real reform must begin with open discussion, among all parties and without punishing anyone. I'm still waiting for that moment. And my prime concern is athletes, especially kids; I want the truth declared for them, about football's terrible dangers, if not their parents. Lousy, hopeless testing, for our discussion here, only serves to cover football's 50-year-old doping problem, and only players suffer the consequences.
Q. And, here's a left-field question: How do you feel about NFL football as a sport—not as a business run by Goodell, not vis a vis HGH or brain injury—but as a sport, as an entertainment?
I think the NFL and big-time NCAA football together constitute the single-most valuable entertainment vehicle in America. And the essential reason is sport violence. Football is “contact ballet” set amid a social spectacle, says Michael Oriard, former NFL lineman and renowned cultural analyst. Football is athleticism in the face of annihilation. That’s why we play and why we watch, damn the casualties, largely kids. My advice, if anybody really wants to “save kids” from drugs in football, or head injuries, don’t let them play this crazy game. Forget the football mythology, especially quick fixes.
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