Rational Reaction: Peyton Manning, HGH And Our Overreaction To PEDs

As Nick has already shared, an Al-Jazeera investigation claims that Peyton Manning, among other pro athletes, acquired human growth hormone from Charlie Sly, a pharmacist who worked at The Guyer Institute, an anti-aging clinic based in Indianapolis.

The NFL banned the usage of HGH in 1991, but did not implement testing procedures until 2011 and testing itself did not begin until 2014. A major reason why HGH testing wasn’t implemented when the NFL first banned its usage was because only a blood test could detect it and such tests weren’t reliable at the time.

Let me get one thing out of the way first: It is certainly possible that Peyton Manning acquired HGH when he was trying to recover from neck surgery. It’s known he explored multiple, legal options to get back onto the playing field sooner.

However, that does not conclusively prove that HGH usage allowed Peyton to elevate his game to the point he could throw a record number of touchdown passes in a season, then rapidly decline after that.

That conclusion some may draw is based on the public perception to any drug that is classified as a performance enhancer by the NFL or any other sports or sports-related organization. And it all goes back to the strong evidence about the usage of anabolic steroids to enhance performance, the health hazards steroid usage and/or abuse can lead to, the general public getting up in arms about the various forms of unfair advantages and the various sports organizations rushing to ban almost anything considered a performance enhancer mainly as a public relations move.

Getting back to Peyton: If he did use HGH in 2011, he violated the NFL PED rules. One can argue whether or not the PED rules are proper and need changing, but until they are, you have to abide by what is in place and, if Peyton did not abide them, he deserves criticism, even if the NFL may not legally be able to punish him (although we all know Roger Goodell and company are likely to try if public debate reaches a high level).

But let’s review a few things that we need to understand before we jump to any conclusion.

First, the investigation was not solely done to target Peyton. His name came up when Sly mentioned it. Al-Jazeera’s investigation was intended to focus on performance-enhancing drug usage among athletes in general, and did not have specific targets in mind. I have watched the network’s pieces before and the network is interested in straight-forward reporting, not about promoting a narrative. I believe that, when Al-Jazeera launched its investigation, it had zero interest in any specific individual.

Second, keep in mind Peyton isn’t the only NFL player implicated in the Al-Jazeera investigation; Peyton just happens to be the most famous. But NFL fans know very well who the likes of James Harrison and Julius Peppers are, and both were accused of acquiring HGH. Furthermore, there’s the matter of Clay Matthews, who wasn’t accused of obtaining HGH, but was accused of acquiring Percocet, a painkiller that requires a prescription, but isn’t banned by the NFL, and accused of wanting another painkiller, Toradol, which is banned in 22 countries but not the United States (and not by the NFL, either).

Third, there are various misconceptions about HGH and what it really does to the body. There are theories that HGH can increase athletic performance and that HGH can help one recover faster from injury or surgery, but the evidence is not conclusive in either case. The only reason some declare the former conclusive is because of the conclusive evidence regarding how anabolic steroids affect athletic performance. And in the layman’s mind, when one hears the term “performance enhancer,” one immediately thinks “steroid” and that anything on a banned list of PEDs must be a steroid.

Except HGH is not a steroid. It is a drug, which steroids are, but that doesn’t make HGH a steroid any more than it makes Tylenol (another drug) a steroid. HGH is regulated as only available by a doctor’s prescription, with the most common legal usages to treat children’s growth disorders and adult growth hormone deficiency. Some doctors are prescribing it to increase vitality in GH-deficient older patients, but that practice, while legal, has not been subject to in-depth clinical testing.

The evidence that HGH can help one recover faster from injury or surgery isn’t proven, but knowing that athletes want to get back out there and contribute, they tend to buy into whatever theories may be out there. In fact, it lead Jason Whitlock to question*, and Tommy Craggs to further ponder, whether or not we really should frown upon Peyton Manning using HGH in an attempt to get back onto the field or extend his career (no, there was no evidence at the time Peyton was using HGH; Whitlock and Craggs simply raised the question at the time of his neck injury, so it wasn’t the first time the HGH subject was brought up).

And while many athletes believe HGH has performance-enhancing capabilities, which only feeds public perception about it, it is not conclusive that it can help an athlete perform at a higher level. Studies have shown that HGH reduces body fat and increases lean body mass, but did not increase muscle mass, which is what anabolic steroids can do. However, while reducing body fat and increasing lean body mass can make an athlete healthier, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee better performance.

So why would athletes believe it to be true? Because athletes are always looking for something to gain that extra edge, to the point they’ll believe that if there’s any evidence that something can help, they’ll do it. All you have to do is look at the athletes who swear by the effects of caffeine on their performance, to the point the World Anti-Doping Agency wanted to restore its ban on usage by Olympic athletes (WADA originally banned caffeine supplements, but ended it in 2004). Imagine if that happened again and other sports organizations followed suit. Are we really going to tell athletes they can’t have caffeinated drinks? (Better question: If the NFL made caffeine a banned PED, does that mean only Caffeine Free Pepsi can sponsor the NFL?)

And any time athletes believe something to be true, the public follows right along. Of course, the public is highly unlikely to want caffeine banned, given how much we love our Starbucks, Coca-Cola and energy drinks. Easier to ban something that the general public doesn’t have easy access to or most likely couldn’t afford if it became widely available. Still, whatever perception athletes have about some performance enhancement theory, the general public doesn’t question it, particularly if it fits the PED narrative. But even if it doesn’t, they still believe it and, in many cases, follow suit when they prepare for any personal workouts.

More importantly, our cries about the need to control performance enhancers go back to how we are so obsessed with sports in general and the accomplishments that come with it. In the NFL, the Super Bowl and various records are holy grails. The same applies to championships and various records in MLB, NBA and other organizations. In the Olympics, we count the number of medals the United States wins and declare that we can’t possibly fall behind any other nation, because American exceptionalism.

Simply put, while we don’t want athletes to take anything and everything to hold onto jobs or pursue major accomplishments, we need to be rational in what we learn about the various drugs and their impact on athletes and not get caught up in a “protect the trophies!” mindset. That requires looking at the bigger picture, and means we need to look at all drugs athletes may take, not just the ones associated with performance enhancement.

Which brings me to the subject of painkillers and Clay Matthews: While the drugs Matthews is accused of acquiring or wanting to acquire are not banned by the NFL, they can be dangerous if used in large quantities. Yet when it comes to painkillers, most people tend to ignore those issues and the NFL certainly doesn’t seem to be concerned with it — at least not presently, even though there’s a lawsuit filed by several retired NFL players claiming the NFL and its teams tried to push painkiller usage upon them. If that lawsuit gains further traction or draws more players as plaintiffs, it may very well blow up into something much bigger, something that the NFL can’t put a lid on.

In other words, our cries about what athletes put into their bodies needs to stop being focused solely on what becomes of the sacred holy grails and needs to be focused on what they are really doing to an athlete’s body and the long-term implications that come with it. Sure, you want to level the playing field as much as you can, but you need to not put your attentions on “we must protect the trophies!” and put your focus on “if it’s proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to give an athlete an unfair advantage over others, it needs to be banned or regulated.” Studies have constantly shown anabolic steroids do this. They have not reached a definitive conclusion about HGH, caffeine or other drugs (yes, caffeine is a drug) that get associated with performance enhancement.

So what should be the rational response? Here it is.

1. While it’s not conclusive what HGH can do for athletic performance, it’s on the NFL’s banned substance list (and of other sports organizations), so as long as it’s there, we need to recognize that athletes can’t use it. That means if Peyton, Harrison, Peppers and others accused of acquiring HGH, did acquire it, it needs to be recognized they violated rules.

2. With that said, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t realize that the perceptions about HGH are mostly that: Perception. As more research takes place about HGH, how it does or doesn’t affect athletic performance, and how it does or doesn’t help athletes (or anyone else) recover from injury or surgery, we need to revisit what we have in place and revise it if necessary, rather than organizations clinging to what’s in place because they are worried about public relations.

3. On that note, the worst thing Roger Goodell can do is drop four-game suspensions on Peyton, Harrison, Peppers or anyone else because players are not allowed to use HGH, or even worse, do the same to Matthews under some belief that, because he may have obtained painkillers, it is “more probable than not” that Matthews obtained HGH. If the four-game suspension can only be levied because of a positive test or a charge of illegal possession, then you can’t suspend the players. All such attempts by Goodell to go beyond punishment that is beyond the rules negotiated in the CBA, will only lead to lawsuits from any player suspended, because all of them can say they never tested positive, and lead to more evidence that Goodell is a control freak who is overly concerned about pacifying the pundits, and the only reason it hasn’t hurt the bottom line is because many people just watch the NFL out of habit.

4. Anyone who cries out to Goodell that he needs to DO SOMETHING needs to take a step back and realize that all it will lead to is more inconsistencies with discipline, more legal hassle and more unhappiness from those who cry for action.

5. There needs to be as much discussion about NFL players (or any athlete, for that matter) using painkillers as much as there is about performance enhancers. Truth be told, too much painkiller usage can cause far worse problems for a player’s long-term health than certain drugs that get filed under “performance enhancer,” whether legal for over-the-counter usage, only legal with a prescription or illegal under any circumstance.

6. It’s time for people to stop getting so up in arms about how records, trophies and medals obtained is some sort of status we all need to hang our hats on and how we acquire them or don’t will somehow lead to the demise of the American way. Sure, it’s nice to accomplish something, but all the Olympic gold medals, Vince Lombardi trophies or passing records aren’t going to solve bigger problems that affect everybody, ranging from economic woes to a clunky health care system that may not be accomplishing what we think it is.

By all means, criticize Peyton Manning for how he’s handling his response. But stop thinking in terms of a worst-case scenario and consider that Peyton may simply have been doing what most athletes — or for that matter, most people — would try to do: If there’s anything that can be done to get me back to either my job or my lifestyle, or help me perform better, I’ll do it. It’s a temptation every human has felt, and more of us tend to fall for that temptation than we may believe.

* – The Whitlock article was one Craggs linked to in his Deadspin article but the link no longer works. However, Craggs’ article does quote a portion of Whitlock’s article.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.