On Thursday, right before the before basketball fans were gearing up for the start of what should prove to be a thrilling slate of playoff games, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association slipped in the equivalent of a Friday news dump.
Namely, starting next season, it would begin testing players’ blood for the presence of Human Growth Hormone.
“All NBA players will be subject to three random, unannounced HGH tests annually (two in-season, one off-season), and players will also be subject to reasonable cause testing for HGH,” the league said in its statement. Penalties for a positive test will start at a 20-game suspension for the first infraction, forty-five for the second and an outright disqualification from the game should the player get popped a third time.
The NBA has never required that players subject themselves to blood testing before, but both Major League Baseball and the National Football League already test for the presence of HGH, and other athletes in sports worldwide are subject to the far more stringent procedures of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency where they “can be randomly tested 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
The thing is, for Michele Roberts, still less than a year into her inaugural term as executive director of the NBPA, this scans as wildly out of character and a major concession to ownership, especially in light of the hardline stance she’s taken on a score of issues.
Roberts has made it perfectly clear that Silver has a no-holds barred fight on his hands with regards to the league’s age limit and the division of revenue between owners and players, saying in no uncertain terms that the current system is “incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”
She’s supported the political statements and protest actions on the part of LeBron James and others, questioned how the media functions and declared that the union will be investigating what actually went down between the police and Thabo Sefolosha last week.
So why would she cave here? Well, it’s partly due to the fact that Roberts didn’t have much choice. During the 2011 collective bargaining agreement negotiations back in 2011, her predecessor, Billy Hunter “agreed to a process for determining how HGH blood testing would be implemented.” Working out the details of the number of tests per season and the length of the suspensions was all that she had to work with.
Also, both Silver and Roberts see (or at least publicly claim that they see) PEDs as a relatively minor issue.
“We may be just that we’re fortunate in the NBA that there is a cultural view that those types of drugs are not helpful for performance,” Silver said during the 2014 MIT/Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference. “I’ve been in the NBA for 22 years—I talk to players all the time, I talk to retired players, and I don’t hear about it.”
“Frankly, I don’t think that it’s a real problem in our game, as compared to some other games,” Roberts told ESPN’s Pablo Torre. “I don’t hear players telling me that they’re opposed to the concept. It’s simply the method.”
Granted, no high-profile NBA stars have gotten pinched, unless you’re willing to waffle on the definition of a “star” and include Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. Certainly nothing along the lines of Lance Armstrong being stripped of nearly every title he’s ever held or Alex Rodriguez being banished for a year and docked millions in salary.
Let’s assume that Roberts and Silver are correct, and this isn’t a rampant problem. And yes, that statement should be met with a serious raised eyebrow, especially in light of the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s 2012 statement that “you’ve got to be very careful when you start saying performance-enhancing drugs are not beneficial in any sport, because you’re going to be proven wrong. And you’ll be proven wrong when you’re not expecting it.”
The reason this agreement is significant is that it’s not just a question of making sure that the NBA isn’t packed with ‘roided-up supermen.
Roberts’ point as to the method of testing—the extracting of blood—is worth noting. Not only because a precedent has established should commissioner Adam Silver decide at some point in the future that far more invasive testing—like requiring a biological passport—is necessary, but because of the frightening steps in biometric testing and analysis that are already underway.
In this ESPN the Magazine article from October you can read about the “skin-adhesive, torso-mounted sensor that is colloquially known within front offices as ‘the patch,’” which can “discern when a player pulls on the covers at night, when he lies down, when his pulse races and—on account of alcohol’s observable effect on heartbeat—when he passes out drunk.”
Now imagine a team compiling this data and shoving it in front of said player’s agent during contract negotiations, armed with proof that some nighttime cavorting might’ve cost them a game or two.
Mark Cuban, no stranger to innovation, tests his players’ blood to “monitor for any abnormalities.” He insisted that this was just a question of using all available methods to increase performance. But there are no structures in place to check his or any team’s behavior.
Then there are the USC scientists hard at work on developing “minimally invasive implantables,” that would stay in an athlete’s body for a year or two and be capable of “feeding key biometric information to your phone.”
“I think all fluids will be extracted in five years,” the recently-retired Miami Heat forward Shane Battier said in the same interview. “I’m glad I’m done.”
To her credit, in her interview with Torre, Roberts addressed her serious reservations with this not-too-distant science fiction future, one in which employers are able to monitor their employees’ activities around the clock and have access to their medical and eventually genetic information.
“If you’re taking that data and suggesting that based on this guy’s performance over a period of a week, or a month, or a season, you predict A, B and C with respect to that player’s effectiveness down the road, then I get really, really troubled,” she said. “I see it as a potential slippery slope…The bottom line is, there are notions of privacy that shouldn’t be waived or waive-able simply because you play in the NBA.”
This brings us back to Thursday’s agreement. It seems as if Roberts is sacrificing what she sees as a minor pawn—HGH testing—because she’s prioritizing the more immediate and contentious battles outlined above: the new CBA, the age limit, and so on.
Further, Roberts has to know that Labor Rights and Privacy issues are a really tough sell with the public when it comes to athletes, especially when the other side can sling Goodell-ian pabulum about “protecting the integrity of the game” and clutch their pearls about “setting an example for the children.”
In fact, the general reaction to all the high profile suspensions in pro sports among fans has not been to question the efficacy or even the morality of the entire drug testing apparatus, but to call for greater authority and to be placed in the hands of management.
You’ve got to look far and wide before you’ll dig up a hot take suggesting Alex Rodriguez got royally hosed—that his punishment was about the powers that be attempting to whitewash their own culpability and the Yankees’ feverish desire to recoup as much of what turns out to have been a royally terrible contract as possible. It’s also worth noting that it he wasn’t caught because of some perfectly designed mousetrap. Far from it. According to his doctor/dealer, Anthony Bosch, A-Rod “passed no less than a dozen MLB-required drug tests.” He’s a pariah because a low-level stooge straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel ratted him out.
That’s not an attempt to excuse A-Rod. He remains a serial liar and yes, a cheater. It’s pointing out that prohibition doesn’t work, period. Those that might profit off either the sale or usage of banned substances are always going to be a few steps (or even miles) ahead of the gatekeepers charged with catching them.
Even after years of ever-increasing efforts to rid pro cycling of doping, for example, the president of Union Cyclist Internationale said that the problem remains “endemic.” One witness that was brought before the Cycling Independent Reform Commission went so far as to estimate that “90 percent of top-level riders still dope.”
In his equally brief tenure, Adam Silver has proven to be one of the most highly respected, forward-thinking commissioners in sports. And he’s been willing to dive into what were previously deemed ethically murky waters, like supporting legalized gambling.
That said, as the science continues to evolve and grow more sophisticated, the hope is Roberts won’t back down nearly so easily. It’s clear that a huge chunk of Roberts’ job is going be providing Silver with an equally forceful counterpart, and she knows it.
When asked what she would like her legacy to be, Roberts said, “She helped us rebuild our union. And made it the strongest union on the planet.”
As she told ESPN, the idea that players were giving up bodily fluids without any idea what was being done with it “made [her] hair curl.”