The NFL is looking to implement a test for human growth hormone in the next collective bargaining agreement and the Bengals have a family tree of strength experts lining up behind the push.
The saying goes "no blood, no foul." They believe the test, which is done by drawing blood, will foul health problems stemming from a drug they say is frightening in its mystery and hides behind the promise of youth and vigor. Even more unknown is how many are using it, but the experts think an HGH test is going to prevent more brain problems as well as result in a decline in size across the league.
"Whenever you introduce testing for any performance-enhancing agent, that will curtail or eliminate that particular agent," says Chip Morton, the Bengals head strength coach. "Some of the physical changes that occur in HGH are pretty apparent. If it protects the health of the player and evens the playing field, it has to be seen as a positive."
One of Morton's mentors, former Bengals strength coach Kim Wood, agrees. Wood, who was a pioneer in the fight against anabolic steroids in the muscle-bound '70s, says the most disturbing byproduct of HGH is that it changes brain chemistry. For both a league and players attempting to come to grips with the long-range health risks associated with brain trauma and concussions, that's a huge red flag.
"The bottom line is that no one truly knows what the side effects are in the brain and that's really the scary thing," Wood says. "It's funny stuff. There's not only the brain chemistry, but also the Endocrine system. No one really understands it and the relationship with the pituitary gland. But if you've got money, anybody can get it on the Internet. You've got no idea if it's counterfeit or what you're exactly putting in your body. It's illegal without a prescription and what doctor is going to prescribe it on that level?"
HGH is secreted by the pituitary gland in the brain and stimulates the growth of tissue, cell reproduction, and regeneration. It has become popular as an anti-aging agent in the elderly, but it is illegal in the NFL and Wood has long been wary of celebrated quick fixes via drugs. Particularly when they are abused by athletes without medical guidance.
"As long as people think they can beat it, there are those that are going to try and do it so they can keep their job," Wood says. "It's all about insecurity. And there is nothing more insecure than an NFL locker room. Everyone is on the bubble. And it may make you bigger, but it's like steroids. It doesn't make you better."
It's hard to gauge. Morton can't put a number on how many players use HGH.
"It's like steroids," he says. "It's not something players and coaches talk about. You have to monitor it and look for any dramatic changes."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn't sure, either. Earlier this week at a high school assembly when he was asked by a student why there are more drugs in baseball than football, he said "I'm not sure that's true."
Wood's fierce anti-drug stance is reflected in the views of his pupils. Wood also mentored Morton's former assistant in the Bengals weight room, University of Kentucky director of strength and conditioning Ray Oliver, as well as Oliver's associate, Ted Lambrinides, a Northern Kentucky strength guru who has worked for years with high school, college and pro athletes. Not only are they concerned about the highest levels of the game, but also the education of youths.
"Remember what happened with steroids," Oliver says. "It had been going on for 40 years and they finally said, 'Yeah, maybe we should tell people how it can kill them.' Drugs are for unhealthy people. When healthy people take drugs, they become unhealthy. When I think of HGH, I think of the people it's designed to help.
"Talk to the doctors at the Shriners Center, where there is somebody with burns over 90 percent of their body. Or an 11th-grader in high school that has dwarfism and is being treated by a doctor who is waiting for the growth spurts and the medical people are deciding on treatment in consultation with both the child's parents. Athletes aren't the first things I think about when I think about HGH. But that's where we are right now."
How HGH tampers with the body chemistry has the experts concerned. For instance, Oliver cites the disease acromegaly, caused by the pituitary producing too much growth hormone after puberty. The disease results in enlargement of hands, feet and facial features, as well as causing problems with internal organs and leading to death if left untreated. The wrestler Andre the Giant is its most famous patient. He showed symptoms of the disease early and reached 240 pounds by age 12 before it killed him at 46 in 1993.
Could the introduction of HGH actually cause one of those pituitary tumors?
It is just one of the unknowns Wood is talking about.
Lambrinides has done a lot of research into the known on HGH stretching back to the days it became in vogue in the late 1970s, he says, as a way to treat tendon injuries caused from the fast pace of growth stimulated by anabolic steroids. But ensuing studies indicate that HGH may actually contribute to the tendon injuries, as well as a rise in diabetes.
"It's expensive, so we don't see much of it at all on the college level because it is cost prohibitive," Lambrinides says.
Like Wood, he cites the dangers of the Wild West aspect of selling the drug over the Internet without any regulation. The sheriffs have to be extremely vigilant.
"Right now there's a band of guys out there that are trying to figure out a way to beat the system, beat the test," Oliver says, "and if you had that many trying to figure out how to kill cancer, we'd beat that, too."
Lambrinides disputes the notions that because the test involves taking blood samples that it violates privacy or is too invasive of a procedure.
"It's really a simple blood test; that's all it is," he says. "It's the same kind of procedure players go through when they go through a yearly physical with the team and the blood is drawn with a needle."
Other than testing, there is really no way to catch it. Wood says there could be visible signs. For instance, while the forehead and chin grow, the teeth don't.
"You won't know the affects of (testing) until at least a couple of years down the road," Morton says. "Yes, you're probably going to see some smaller players. But it's like in baseball. You won't notice the difference until you're able to look back over time."
By then, Morton knows there could be something else to look for.
"Someone," he says, "is always trying to crack the code."