Deadspin's Matt McCarthy reminded us yesterday of Mark Cuban’s push to legalize human growth hormone in the National Basketball Association. In November, the Dallas Mavericks owner announced he was looking to fund research that would study the potential use of HGH for injury rehabilitation, telling league officials at a Board of Governors meeting that he hoped more knowledge on the subject would lead to review of whether the drug should remain on the banned substances list.
HGH carries a negative connotation after two decades of performance-enhancing-drug scandals. After high-profile cases involving some of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars, the league began implementing in-season HGH testing this past year. The Olympics test for the drug as well, while the National Football League has battled its union for the right to test players for HGH. Similarly, blood testing was a high priority for recently retired NBA Commissioner David Stern, and it appears the league is slowly moving in that direction.
Although the public is understandably weary of PEDs, HGH has a chance to separate itself among substances used purely to gain competitive advantage as something that can be used for healing. Many athletes, such as former New York Yankees' pitcher Andy Pettitte, have admitted to suing HGH to speed up their recovery from an injury or major surgery, as it's known to repair bone and cartilage. A 2010 study by Australia’s Garvan Institute, funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency, however, was one of the first to clearly demonstrate the drug’s performance-enhancing effects, especially on sprint ability.
But as we saw after Pettitte’s admission, fans are more willing to accept a player who has admitted to PED use when he meets two important criteria: He is perceived to have doped to hasten the process of getting back on the field – not to influence his game while on it – and he is liked already. If Yankees' third baseman Alex Rodriguez had anywhere near the social capital among fans that Pettitte had, and if his PED use wasn’t seen as aiding his historic home run chase, and if he hadn’t been caught twice, the backlash against his scandal might not have been as severe.
Legalizing HGH in the NBA is still a long way away. Cuban and the league would first have to answer for the negative side effects known from extended use at the heightened levels at which athletes tend to take it. As McCarthy points out, there are a ton of loopholes that can be exploited even with low-dose HGH, and a major obstacle would be finding doctors willing to administer the synthetic version of a naturally occurring substance to patients who don’t suffer from a particular lack of that hormone. Given how valuable these athletes and their bodies are to owners like Cuban, it makes sense to explore the potential for the substance to help preserve their players and thus their investments in an increasingly injury-plagued league.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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