Let’s stay on the subject of rugby, yes? I want to talk about Terry Newton for a minute. I have a Google News alert set for “Terry Newton,” and every few days I click on the email and find another story that leaves me angry and heartbroken. Newton was a British rugby leaguer, and by all accounts a very good and violent one. Age and injuries slowed him, and he responded the way old and damaged athletes often respond:
“The HGH came with storage advice on the label—‘keep refrigerated’,” he recounted in his book, Coming Clean. “I opened the fridge, looked in and thought ‘Not a chance’. Where will she [his wife, Stacey] never find it? Where’s quite cold? The garage! She’d never stumble across it in there, and surely that must be cool enough to keep it okay. I pulled my toolbox from the shelf, and slotted it [the case containing the syringes] behind. It fit [sic], perfectly.”
Rugby, like the NFL, is anxious about the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. Someone tipped off U.K. Anti-Doping, and in February of last year Newton became the world’s first athlete to test positive for HGH, for which he received a two-year ban and lifelong notoriety. (Because HGH can be detected only within a day or two of injection, it is unlikely Newton would’ve been caught if he hadn’t been ratted out.) At the time, Newton responded the way supposedly miscreant athletes often respond: with a media tour. He wrote his confessional and began the traditional Maoist self-criticism ritual in the press. His interviews were morose; he sounded like a man tired of dragging his cross from media outlet to media outlet. It would come out later that he had fallen into a depression in 2009 after the death of his sister, Leanne, a heroin addict. He bought a pub. Seven months into his suspension, in September 2010, Newton hanged himself. “Luv U all but it’s end time,” he wrote on his Facebook page. In his final interview, Newton said he’d be remembered for two things: drugs and smashing an opponent’s cheekbone.
I think of Terry Newton when I see Congress bumble into the impasse between the NFLPA and the NFL over a blood-testing regime for HGH. Say it with me now: We are talking here of a test of dubious efficacy for a substance of uncertain benefits. I don’t know for a fact that Newton killed himself because of his positive test. I do know that it cost him his livelihood and his celebrity. And I know that human beings turn to performance-enhancing drugs for human reasons, and that our cyclical frenzies over this stuff have all too human consequences. The hysteria is already upon us—one sure sign is the explosion of armchair epidemiology (Boomer Esiason speculates that 20 percent of players use HGH; Earnest Graham thinks it’s 30 percent; Scott Fujita thinks it’s 1 percent). We would do well to remember that the drug warriors’ splendid first warning shot in the fight against HGH left Terry Newton dangling at the end of a rope.