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Drug-test grandstanding simply NFL's latest PR play

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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The National Football League, whatever that is, announced Thursday that it would insist that the artists formerly known as The League's Players would be made to submit to testing for human growth hormone.

I mean, since they're not talking anyway, they may as well start not talking about the big stuff, right?

It shouldn't be difficult for DeMaurice Smith to get the NFL off of the HGH-testing subject. (Getty Images)  
It shouldn't be difficult for DeMaurice Smith to get the NFL off of the HGH-testing subject. (Getty Images)  
In fact, when vice president and general counsel Adolpho Birch told Alex Marvez of FoxSports, and we quote, "We want it. We think it's necessary. We're going to ensure that it's done," he sounded exactly like someone who knew it was safe to do a little free-range grandstanding.

And as soon as he said it, you know the union said to itself, "Who cares what you want, and you can't ensure that anything gets done. Now we have one more thing to fight about. Yummy."

See, HGH testing is actually one of those things both the league and the players should want, and in the current climate between the two, ultimatums are the worst possible way to achieve such an end.

And besides, anyone who has paid any attention to labor negotiations in sports knows that the first items off the table when things get serious are the nonfinancial ones. It's how Major League Baseball could always say it brought up steroids in negotiations with the union without ever having actually fought for it a single time.

Why, you ask? Because testing costs money, and the owners aren't all that interested in spending money even if it might be for a sensible cause.

Now maybe if Birch had said, "We want it. We think it's necessary. We intend to make it a serious part of negotiations so that both sides eventually come to agree on the need," one could say, "OK, they're serious about getting this done because they want to cooperate with the players on getting it done."

But no, "We're going to ensure that it gets done" is just a way of squeezing the union's shoes for public consumption. The players know it, and just out of the principle of "Ensure this!" will now have one more wedge issue upon which to bloody the owners.

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We know that HGH testing would catch some high-visibility players, which neither side would actually want. We also know that a lot of players have already graduated onto the next plane of undetectable performance enhancers because that is the nature of progress on the chemical front.

But we know most of all that these negotiations rise and fall on the money, and when the scent of cash gets in everyone's nostrils, bigger concepts get swept aside. It has always been thus.

Not only that, both owners and players regard the players' bodies less respectfully than in any other team sport. That's why contracts aren't guaranteed, career spans average barely three years and why both sides wince and look away when stories like Dave Duerson's death due to brain-trauma-induced suicide surface.

In short, football is dangerous, everyone knows it and yet there is an almost unlimited supply of players to fill in when one goes down. It's how the owners can have such little regard for the players -- they view the players as hammers on a tool belt. When the head flies off the handle, they go and grab a new hammer off the shelf.

Logically, this would suggest that drug testing to make the game safer would be of nobody's interest except as a club with which to beat the other side, and when Birch decided to declare it an inviolable truth of negotiations that the owners would demand and achieve victory on testing, we could only laugh.

If they wanted it, they would work with the players to agree on it. But since it doesn't bring more money in, we know and the players know that it's just grandstanding designed to put the players in a temporary public relations box.

This was, is and will always be about money, first and foremost, and one should not forget that. It's the same as it has been with all the other sports at times like these. Health and safety is important until it becomes time to talk about health and safety. Then it becomes about money, because money is what they want to argue about.

Maybe the league just thought it might be a good time to bring it up with the Barry Bonds degrade-o-thon beginning n San Francisco. Maybe they see that people are coming to realize that the most pronounced side effect of steroid use is that it makes you a bad judge of companions. And maybe they thought it would help shame the players.

Well, fine. Except the league shaming players for public consumption tends to make players less likely to respond well to the point the owners say they're trying to make. And they knew that when they sent Birch out with his podium, microphone and storyline.

So we'll see how long negotiations teeter on HGH testing when the two sides actually meet again. The over/under is 25 minutes. The over has never paid off.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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