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Almost two years ago, when former NFL Players Association president Troy Vincent(notes) was queried about human growth hormone and the NFL, he toed the union's party line. It wasn't something the group felt was "common" in the league, Vincent said.
And yet, once again, when news broke of a federal investigation into a doctor with ties to HGH, the story found a way to reach out and touch the NFL.
There has been nothing concrete, mind you, that suggests Canadian doctor Anthony Galea has delivered HGH to NFL players. But the fact that Galea is now mixed up in a federal investigation involving growth hormone – and that he has treated some NFL players in the past – is dubious, at best. And it underscores an issue that continues to sit on the back burner, but promises to never go away. While I'll concede that NFL players are governed by the strictest set of testing guidelines in any professional sport, I'd argue that without a way to detect HGH, it will remain fundamentally flawed. Growth hormone isn't the elephant in the room – it's King Kong. And when a reliable test is developed for HGH, be it blood or urine, the league has to implement it in the drug policy immediately.
The investigation into Galea was revealed this week by The New York Times. According to The Times, Galea has admitted administering HGH to himself regularly for the last 10 years. But it wasn't until September that he drew the eye of U.S. authorities. According to The Times, authorities at the U.S.-Canadian border discovered HGH and the drug Actovegin in a bag belonging to Galea.
ESPN.com reported the contents were being illegally driven into the country by Galea assistant Mary Anne Catalano, who was instructed that, if the drugs were discovered, she should say the drugs were not meant to be administered to patients in the United States. Among the items confiscated, according to ESPN.com, were "20 vials and 76 ampoules of unknown misbranded drugs – including human growth hormone – and foreign labeled homeopathic drugs, 111 syringes, a diagnostic ultrasound computer, miscellaneous documents and a laptop computer." A month later, Galea's clinic outside of Toronto was raided.
In the wider view, it's still unknown what the fallout will be – if any – in the sports community. So far, there has yet to be any evidence he distributed HGH to athletes. But with growth hormone becoming a significant problem in the world of sports, the exposure of Galea's ties to many high-profile athletes, including Tiger Woods, Olympic swimmer Dara Torres and others, has to be uncomfortable in some quarters – particularly for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Not only is Galea the former team doctor for the Toronto Argonauts, but he has ironclad ties to the NFL. According to The Times, Galea has consulted Denver Broncos quarterback Chris Simms(notes) and Oakland Raiders wideout Javon Walker(notes). In Walker's case, the newspaper said Galea arranged a "cartilage-replacement surgery on his knee in Jerusalem because the procedure is not approved in the United States or Canada." In other cases, The Times said Galea treated "NFL players who take red-eye flights on Monday nights for treatment on Tuesdays, their day off, because of the platelet-rich plasma methodology that he began using eight years ago."
At best, it seems slightly awkward for NFL players to have formed such an intimate medical relationship with a doctor who admits taking HGH for the last 10 years, particularly when the league has dealt with several high-profile stories regarding its players and growth hormone in recent years. Among them:
• Former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison(notes) was ensnared in a federal investigation into HGH distribution. Harrison was ultimately suspended four games in 2007 for admitting to authorities that he had used growth hormone to recover from injury.
• Several members of the Carolina Panthers' Super Bowl team in 2004 were ensnared in a steroids and HGH investigation that ultimately resulted in South Carolina doctor James Shortt being imprisoned and losing his license to practice medicine.
• Former No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch(notes) admitted to Yahoo! Sports in 2007 that he used HGH while attempting to recover from shoulder surgery. Couch was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly before the Yahoo! Sports report appeared and has been out of the NFL since.
• Then-Washington Redskins offensive tackle Jon Jansen(notes) remarked on HBO's "Costas Now" in 2006 that it would be "naïve and foolish" to think that NFL players weren't using HGH. Jansen went on to estimate that "maybe 15, 20 percent" were using illegal performance-enhancers. He later backed down from those percentages after being contacted by NFL brass.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Earnest Graham went even further after this week's events with Galea, and said in a radio interview with Tampa's WQYK-AM that he believes 30 percent of NFL players are using HGH. Like Jansen, he reiterated that with no test, players will push the boundaries with growth hormone.
Perhaps Graham and Jansen are exposing the most realistic view about growth hormone and the NFL. As a result, once a test becomes available, it is a must for the league. And the league can't allow the union to dictate terms, as late NFLPA head Gene Upshaw intended to, once stating that players would consent to urine but not blood tests.
The reality is the NFL will never be able to control the doctors. It'll never be able to control how players are handling their medical care, where they are going to get it, or who is guiding their decisions. For the league, the fight is going to have to occur through aggressive and complete testing on the back end. Until that happens, NFL players and the league itself will keep getting dragged into a questionable light.
Here are some of this week's other inconvenient truths …
I'm not sold on Holmgren as a "czar"
Much has been made about this title with the Cleveland Browns, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about Mike Holmgren when it comes to that role. Let's forget for a moment that on Holmgren's end, this extremely public courtship in Cleveland smacks of a chess move to force the hand of the Seattle Seahawks, who clearly are dragging their feet on a general manager search.
The courtship of Mike Holmgren and the Cleveland Browns has been a public affair.
Let's just ask the basic questions. First, this "czar" role is hazy in itself. Will Holmgren be the general manager? Could he still be in play as a coach and GM? Or will it be more of a Bill Parcells seat, with Holmgren cementing himself as president and picking his own general manager and coach – but retaining full personnel power over all of them?
It's a vital question for the Browns because there seems to be a lot of ambiguity surrounding what owner Randy Lerner wants. Just saying that you are seeking someone to oversee your entire football operation isn't a plan. It's more of a vague idea. And let's be honest: the nebulous nature of decisions in this franchise helped to deliver the Browns to this point. I'm not sure even Lerner knows what he wants a guy like Holmgren to do. Indeed, after speaking to someone close to Holmgren, it sounds like Lerner wants Holmgren to make that decision for him.
And I have no problem with that, if we're talking about Parcells. Yes, I'll admit Parcells has had some warts as a personnel evaluator. But he also has a fairly detailed body of work, so there isn't a looming question about what he brings to the table. Meanwhile, Holmgren's track record on the personnel side is short and contains plenty of flaws. Lest we forget, Holmgren didn't string together back-to-back winning seasons in Seattle until after the talent procurement was taken out of his hands. And I firmly believe there wouldn't have been a Super Bowl run without drafts belonging to Bob Whitsitt (ugh … yes, it pained me to say that) and Tim Ruskell. Ruskell's selections of Lofa Tatupu(notes) and Leroy Hill(notes) in 2005 were pivotal.
All of that said, I don't believe we can definitively say Ruskell was hands down better than Holmgren when it came to the personnel end of football. But I don't know that Holmgren's four seasons as chief decision maker (from 1999-2002) were the stuff of legend. Yes, he plucked two immaculate gems in Steve Hutchinson(notes) and Shaun Alexander(notes). But he also missed on an entire draft (1999), traded running back Ahman Green(notes) to the Green Bay Packers for Fred Vinson (who?) and aside from Darrell Jackson(notes) (2000), produced almost no exceptional players after the first two rounds.
Is it possible Holmgren just wasn't given a large enough window? Is a four-year body of work too small to make a lasting judgment? That is certainly an arguable point. But flip the question and ask this: If Holmgren isn't going to coach, does his four-year body of work as an evaluator justify handing him the keys to an entire franchise? The bottom line, I think Cleveland would be taking a bigger risk than fans realize with Holmgren. I can't question his coaching acumen, but this is a team that needs to be built from the ground up, and I just don't know if Holmgren is that kind of architect. And frankly, I'm not sure owner Randy Lerner knows for sure, either.
I would bet on the Saints going 16-0
Payton's Saints have already matched the franchise's best win total for a season.
Now that the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts have hit 13-0, the most common question on every radio spot has been which team is more likely to go 16-0? While I think the schedule actually favors both the Saints and Colts finishing the regular season undefeated, I think New Orleans is taking a better tactical approach.
I understand what Colts general manager Bill Polian is doing when he says that health is the franchise's top priority right now. It's an easy way to diffuse pressure by being somewhat flippant about the whole goal of going 16-0. And it has worked in the Colts' favor, making Polian and his remarks more of a focal point. Better to have the media debating a general manager's stance than constantly harping on how a coach or quarterback or entire roster is approaching it.
But I favor the approach of Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees(notes), who have embraced 16-0 as a goal. When you're 13-0 and within an eyelash of icing the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs – and relatively healthy – you have accomplished your regular-season goals. Doesn't it make sense to establish one more, when you have the rare opportunity to seize history? If anything, I think you expend far more energy as a team fighting off the 16-0 talk than you do by simply saying "Sure, now that we're in this position, we're going to go for it."
I think that approach says something about Payton as a coach. He's got an underrated cockiness about him, and I think his players respond to it. And frankly, even without the hyperbole, the cards are stacked in his favor. New Orleans is running into Dallas this week at the perfect time, if you want to study two teams going in the opposite direction mentally. After the Cowboys, the struggling Buccaneers and Panthers are left on the slate. New Orleans has also gutted out close road games in the last two weeks, both of which should have made the team aware of its mortality. And two of their final three games are inside the Superdome, which is one of the few deafening closed stadiums still remaining in the NFL.