Major League Baseball and the players union announced Thursday that they had reached a deal to expand the league’s drug-testing program, including random blood testing for human growth hormone during the season and installing a new test to spot high levels of testosterone. It is a major step for a league whose recent history is tainted with performance-enhancing drugs and, over the past two years, has seen several top stars caught with positive drug test results.
“This agreement addresses critical drug issues and symbolizes Major League Baseball’s continued vigilance against synthetic human growth hormone, testosterone and other performance-enhancing substances,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. “I am proud that our system allows us to adapt to the many evolving issues associated with the science and technology of drug testing.”
The new drug-testing program will begin next season.
The news also comes at a curious time, a day after the announcement that no players on the ballot for next year’s Hall of Fame class will be inducted. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, among the best players to ever play, headlined a class of first-time candidates who were flatly rejected entrance by baseball writers for their lead roles in the steroid-tainted era of the sport’s past. It was first time since 1996 that no one was inducted into that year’s Hall of Fame.
MLB became the first major league sports in the U.S. to agree, in November of 2011, to testing for HGH, a substance that is illegal without a prescription and can be used to increase muscle mass and help recovery. But the program, which began last season, required that players be tested only during spring training, during the offseason and when there was reasonable cause.
Now, the league and the union have agreed to expand the testing to unannounced, random in-season blood testing. The new drug-testing agreement puts MLB ahead of other leagues, notably the NFL and its union, which agreed to implement HGH testing in their new 2011 labor agreement but have yet to put it in place.
Since July 2010, the league has been conducting random blood testing for HGH in the minor leagues. HGH is detectable through blood sample not through urine samples. MLB began random drug testing in 2003 and stiffened penalties in 2006, when they also banned illegal amphetamines.
In addition to the new HGH testing protocols announced by MLB and the players’ union Wednesday, both sides will have the Montreal Laboratory, a World Anti-Doping Agency accredited-lab, to establish testosterone baselines — called a longitudinal profile — for every player and monitor whether a player’s level rises abnormally.
Last year, San Francisco Giants all-star outfielder Melky Cabrera tested positive for testosterone and was suspended 50 games, the penalty for a first-time offender for a performance-enhancing drug. Oakland Atheltics pitcher Bartolo Colon also tested positive for testosterone last season and was suspended, as was all-star outfielder Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, but his test result was overturned after his appeal. Seven players were suspended for performance-enhancing drugs last year – the highest total in five years. Synthetic testosterone, which helps with muscle recovery and breakdown and can be applied through creams of gels, became popular because it can act and leave the body quickly.
“The Players are determined to do all they can to continually improve the sport’s Joint Drug Agreement,” said Michael Weiner, executive director of the MLB Players Association. “Players want a program that is tough, scientifically accurate, backed by the latest proven scientific methods, and fair; I believe these changes firmly support the Players’ desires while protecting their legal rights.”
The new drug testing policy drew praise from across the sports world. WADA Director General David Howman said: “An anti-doping program can only be considered effective when it is allowed to monitor players the whole year round.” Rep. Henry Waxman (D), who led past House hearings on steroid use in baseball, added: “Baseball can rightly boast that it has the best testing program among our country’s professional sports leagues. Major League Baseball and the Players’ Union have moved a long way from the inadequate policies that were in place when Congress first addressed ballplayers’ use of steroids.”