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HGH negotiations hit stumbling block

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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WASHINGTON

A two-hour Congressional subcommittee hearing designed to prod the NFL to test for human growth hormone didn’t seem to have any measurable impact on the one entity that matters.

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The NFL Players Association.

“We appreciate and respect Congress’ interest in these issues,” said NFLPA spokesman George Atallah after Wednesday’s hearing in front of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “We want to be good role models, not only for the players who play football, but for youth sports throughout the country. But along with testing and having a clean game, we also want to set the example of what fair due process is like.”

An HGH test in the NFL — one conditionally agreed to as part of the collective bargaining agreement ratified in August 2011 — appears to be some months off, at best.

“Let's get on with it,” testified Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, who sat alongside drug experts at the witness table.

The NFLPA still insists on a population study. Union officials feel the one used to validate the HGH test — which has been in use for several years on the Olympic level and most recently by Major League Baseball — is not applicable to the body composition of NFL players.

"The only people questioning the validity of the (HGH) isoform test are lawyers, not scientists," testified Larry Bowers, chief science officer for the US Anti-Doping Agency.

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The NFL and the NFLPA agreed to hire an independent expert to evaluate the need for a population study and, if one is deemed necessary, conduct a survey of normal HGH levels among NFL players.

The problem is that the two sides can’t even agree on an expert.

The league has offered several experts to the union, according to Adolpho Birch, the NFL senior vice president of law and labor.

“We have tried to satisfy their concerns and make sure there was a credible expert involved,” Birch said. “I think frankly that no credible expert is willing to do this because they all know it’s not necessary. It’s more of a political issue, not science.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, accused the NFLPA of “running out clock” and “trying to back out” of an agreement to test for HGH, thought to be one of the more widely used performance-enhancing drugs by elite athletes.

Atallah said he didn’t want to "put an artificial timeline or deadline" on when the NFL may finally begin start testing for HGH, which — unlike testing for steroids — requires a blood draw.

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“I’m hopeful between all of this the union can agree, and (say), ‘OK, we don’t need to go reinvent the wheel. We can move forward,’” Birch said.

While the science of the test wasn’t at question during Wednesday’s hearing, a couple other issues related to HGH — and even an underlying purpose of the hearing — were called into question.

Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, questioned whether HGH should be considered a performance-enhancing drug.

“The studies performed to date found little to no evidence that increased lean body mass that can result from using unnaturally high dosed of HGH has any effects on boosting strength, power or aerobic capacity in healthy individuals,” Tabak testified.

Regardless, Birch said there is more than one reason HGH is banned. Beyond players getting an unfair advantage, he said it’s also to prevent “the coercive effect of certain drugs.”

Then there was what committee chairman Rep. Issa, D-Calif, and Cummings cited as a leading reason he called the meeting: to bring light of the situation and deter performance-enhancing drugs among young athletes.

Linn Goldberg, creator of the ATLAS and ATHENA youth drug prevention programs, said hearings like this one will have no bearing on whether youths turn to PEDs.

"If Congress thinks use of (PEDs) by youth athletes is a problem, than do something about it," he said.

Cummings told FOXSports.com that hearings are impactful.

“No doubt about it,” said Cummings, co-founder of the Powered by Me! drug education campaign based in Maryland. “When you get it on this level and discuss it, the articles are already been written. The word gets out. A lot times people are just not aware.”

The NFL and NFLPA were also put on notice. Both Issa and Cummings promised more hearings, likely with NFL and NFLPA officials called to testify next time.

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