MLB, players take lead on drug testing. Will NFL players follow?

Major League Baseball announced an agreement with the players' union to start in-season random drug testing, including for human growth hormone. NFL players have delayed implementation of a 2011 agreement.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
In this August 2007 file photo, San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds hits his 761st career home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game in San Francisco. The MLB announced its plan to take lead on drug testing during the 2013 season, a day after national baseball writers declined to nominate anyone to the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least in part because some of the major names – including Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa – have faced serious doping allegations.

After years of serving as Exhibit A in a national debate over professional athletes' use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), specifically human growth hormone, Major League Baseball on Thursday announced its plan to eradicate the practice from the professional diamond.

The announcement of an agreement between owners and the players' union to start random, unannounced testing of players during the 162-game 2013 season came a day after national baseball writers declined for the first time since 1996 to select anyone to the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least in part because some of the major names – including Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa – have faced serious doping allegations.

While there may not be a direct causation between the Hall of Fame vote and the agreement between teams and players, the two developments are linked in the minds of many sportswriters and fans, primarily because they focus on the role of players in solving the PED problem.

"The gray area is vast, and covered in muck, and there is no question some who secretly juiced eventually will pass through the gates of Cooperstown while others are barred on circumstantial evidence," writes CBS Sports correspondent Jon Heyman, capturing a public sentiment.

The burden, writes Mr. Heyman, is "on the player's union, which stonewalled on PED testing for too many years when its members had the chance to get on the right side of the issue for the greater good of its own constituents."

Since 2011, MLB players have been tested in the off-season, but extending that regimen into the regular season is part of Commissioner Bud Selig's stated intention for baseball to have the strongest drug-testing program in professional sports.

But as can be seen with the situation in the NFL, which was the focus of congressional hearings in December over alleged stonewalling by the players' union on a testing agreement signed in 2011, the issue remains irksome.

NFL players say they want another study of the impact of the tests before they agree to a regimen. Given the MLB players’ decision to move ahead with in-season testing, that stance by football players has begun to risk the integrity of the game and threaten the league's reputation, some officials say.

"As a league, we need to look at it in terms of competitive integrity, in terms of being consistent with the NFL having a leadership position in the world of performance-enhancing drugs," NFL senior vice president Adolfo Birch told Congress. "And frankly, I think this delay in implementing this program has put our leadership position at risk."

Players' union officials have denied that NFL players are stonewalling. But even some baseball players say the hesitation to conduct testing during the season is legitimate, if only because it can take a toll on an athlete's body.

"It's just not right," Seattle Mariners' catcher Miguel Olivo told USA Today about one off-season test. "They took so much blood from me, I almost passed out. Even when I went to eat at night, I threw up."

Human growth hormone, HGH, which is illegal to use non-medically, is used by players in part to help them recover more quickly during long, brutal sporting seasons, but they're also widely believed to improve physical prowess, including by making players faster and giving them better vision.

Such perks boosted the use of HGH in the 1990s, giving rise to what sportswriters now often refer to as "the steroid era," where records and accomplishments by players believed to have juiced now bear an asterisk.

In Wednesday's sportswriters' Hall of Fame vote, Messrs. Bonds and Clemens both earned around 37 percent of votes, far short of the 75 percent required to boost a retired player into the Hall. The two players will, however, remain on the list for future consideration.

Fans and major sports leagues have debated PED use for years, and the US government has prosecuted both Bonds and Clemens for conduct related to doping. Yet athletes have arguably been the slowest to come out united against the practice, often for individual reasons.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong has maintained for years that he never used PEDs, even after an international cycling body last year stripped him of his lifetime victories, including seven Tour de France victories, for allegedly masterminding a doping program. The New York Times on Jan. 4 quoted anonymous sources as saying Mr. Armstrong is ready to admit to doping, and he is scheduled for a 90 minute interview with Oprah Winfrey on Jan. 17.

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