It was an awful weekend on the injury front in the NBA, with Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (right medial meniscus tear), Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (sprained left medial collateral ligament) and Golden State Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala (strained left hamstring) all succumbing to non-contact injuries and facing indefinite shelvings that could cause significant shockwaves in the NBA playoff picture. The trio of landscape-shifting reports served as a sharp reminder of a simple truth: stars and key contributors go down every season in the NBA, making injury prevention and rehabilitation critical elements of a basketball franchise's planning and operations, and pushing teams to constantly seek training-room edges that help keep their players on the court or return them to working order after they've been sidelined.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban takes that sort of medical investment very seriously; as he said at the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Mavs are "locking up our medical staff to longer-term deals than our players." And in the search for advancements, he thinks sports leagues, including the NBA, should be taking a closer look at the prospective benefits of human growth hormone (HGH), according to Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports:
Cuban isn't advocating the use of the controversial drug but rather calling attention to what he sees as a dearth of research on the topic as it relates to athletes who are recovering from injury. His hope, which he shared in front of the league's owners and league officials at an Oct. 23 Board of Governors meeting in New York, is that a more-informed decision can be made as to whether it should remain on the league's banned-substance list or perhaps be utilized as a way of expediting an athlete's return to the court. If it were ever allowed — and it's safe to say that won't be happening anytime soon — Cuban sees a major benefit for teams and their fans like.
"The issue isn't whether I think it should be used," Cuban told USA TODAY Sports via e-mail. "The issue is that it has not been approved for such use. And one of the reasons it hasn't been approved is that there have not been studies done to prove the benefits of prescribing HGH for athletic rehabilitation or any injury rehabilitation that I'm aware of. The product has such a huge (public) stigma that no one wants to be associated with it." [...]
Cuban's comments to USA TODAY echo some that he made this summer during an appearance on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." In the midst of a discussion about MLB player Alex Rodriguez's season-plus-long PED suspension, Cuban offered his opinion on the broader issue of what we do and don't know about HGH's effects.
"I'll tell you one other thing — you know, being in sports, I try to pay attention to all the technology and everything," Cuban said. "It's never been proven that HGH helps a baseball player or a basketball player. It's just been so tainted that players shouldn't take it that it's become banned for no good reason."
HGH is produced naturally by the body, but can also be synthesized for injection. It has been used to promote growth and increase bone density, muscle mass and exercise capacity in children and adults with growth-hormone deficiencies. Some believe that it could provide the same sort of muscle-building, fat-reducing benefits in those without hormone deficiencies, too, although "studies of healthy adults taking human growth hormone are limited" and "it isn't clear if human growth hormone may provide other benefits to healthy adults," according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition to skepticism surrounding HGH's potential benefits in healthy adults, it also carries with it some serious possible side effects, including nerve, muscle and joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, numbness, high cholesterol, heightened risk of diabetes and possibly even promoting the growth of cancerous tumors.
Use of HGH is illegal without a prescription. Under the 1990 Anabolic Steroids Control Act, distribution and possession of HGH “for any use … other than the treatment of a disease or other recognized medical condition, where such use has been authorized by the Secretary of Health and Human Services … and pursuant to the order of a physician …” is classified as a felony, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The World Anti-Doping Agency and International Olympic Committee classify HGH as a performance-enhancing drug and ban athletes from using it.
Performance-enhancing drug use hasn't been nearly as sizable a story in the NBA as it has in other major sports leagues; only three players (Rashard Lewis, O.J. Mayo and Hedo Turkoglu) have been suspended for a PED-related violation of the league's drug policy. The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to the appointment of a panel of experts to study the issue of HGH testing as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, but no findings have been reported as yet.
NBA Commissioner David Stern raised the prospect of updating that policy to include blood testing for HGH back in February, saying he hoped to have a policy in place by the beginning of this season. While the league and the union were reportedly nearing a deal in March, talks cooled and eventually broke off, resulting in a September report that the two sides were nowhere close to an agreement that would lead to the implementation of testing. Negotiations on the nature of the testing policy reportedly remain ongoing.
To a certain extent, it does seem odd that this sort of energy, effort and negotiation are being devoted to something about which so much remains unclear and unknown. From that perspective, Cuban's call makes a lot of sense — I mean, if we're going to go to all the trouble of marking out a testing policy for a substance banned due to its potentially harmful properties, wouldn't it stand to reason that we should take steps to find out if it couldn't actually be helpful in a specific context? More from Cuban:
"I believe that professional sports leagues should work together and fund studies to determine the efficacy of HGH for rehabbing an injury," Cuban told USA TODAY Sports. "Working together could lead us from the path of demonizing HGH and even testosterone towards a complete understanding. It could allow us to make a data based decision rather than the emotional decision we are currently making. And if it can help athletes recover more quickly, maybe we can extend careers and have healthier happier players and fans."
It seems unlikely that Cuban's call for increased study and interest in potentially de-stigmatizing HGH will bear fruit. Given the nature of the PED problem in other sports, the commissioner's office's push toward establishing a stronger testing policy and getting ahead of the "maintaining a level playing field" debate, and the existing body of medical evidence with respect to the substance's potential side effects, it seems much more plausible that the NBA will instead skew "closer to cracking down on HGH use of any kind," as Amick writes. That said, given what we know about Cuban's willingness to put his money where his mouth is when he wants a study to take place, I wouldn't expect this to be the last we hear from the Dallas owner on the matter.