Hines Ward was an integral part of Pittsburgh’s victory in the Super Bowl over the Arizona Cardinals. This came a couple weeks after the Ravens tried to break him in half on a tackle after a catch. In that tackle, Ward reportedly sprained his medial collateral ligament and underwent treatment so that he could play in the Super Bowl. Then, on the broadcast Andrea Kremer talked about Ward’s treatment. She reported that Ward had some blood drawn, had cells removed, concentrated, and then injected in the affected area of Ward’s knee. Then the Internet exploded with rumor and speculation.
If it weren’t for the Tour de France, I don’t think anybody would have ever heard of blood doping. Blood doping is terminology, at least in cycling, that refers to the injection of concentrated blood in a near timeframe to competition in order to boost stamina and aerobic capacity. In the case of cycling, the practice is desirable to riders because the increase in red blood cells will deliver oxygen to muscles more efficiently, which subsequently should reduce fatigue. It is this knowledge that probably spurred all the speculation and intrigue with Hines Ward’s procedure on the Internet.
So what do we actually know about Hines Ward’s treatment?
Well, first, a disclaimer. When it comes to talk of performance-enhancing drugs and procedures I really want to be extra careful. As a sports writer who has no medical expertise that isn’t provided by Google, it would be irresponsible for me to draw wildly judgmental conclusions. So, while I will tell what I found out and maybe my initial thoughts and opinions, they should be taken as just that.
According to Dr. Allan Mishra, what Hines Ward had was a Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) treatment. According to Mishra’s website, the treatment has been used in the past for Major League soccer players. The thought by many doctors seems to be that this is just the next step in treating injuries and that someday it will be used in orthopedic surgeries from knees and shoulders to the achilles and even chronic tendinitis and “tennis elbow.” Doesn’t it seem awfully strange that such similar sounding procedures could be completely demonized in one world while making for a feel-good story on the sidelines of the Super Bowl? What gives?
Just from my amateurish viewpoint, one thing sticks out to me already. In the world of cycling it sounds as if guys are blood doping to get an edge on the competition. They aren’t addressing a specific injury. They are injecting to increase stamina to allow them to compete at a higher level above their opponents.
Contrast that with Hines Ward who was using his PRP treatment to treat a specific injury in his knee. He wasn’t using the treatment to make him better than the player who walked onto the field week one of the NFL season. He was attempting to heal an injury that was threatening to keep him off the field completely. And while endurance and stamina do matter in an NFL game, it is something that teams are already artificially enhancing on an every-game basis as it is with oxygen masks, right? It is through this lens that it appears to me that there is a distinction between the treatments.
And what of the treatments? Are they virtually the same? While I can draw differences between the potential perceptions of the two treatments, I can’t possibly compare the two from a scientific standpoint with my measly sports-brain. While I didn’t find anything conclusive, I did get some interesting info from my research and some scientific friends. Keep in mind, yet again, that these are just theories proposed by me and other people who haven’t produced studies.
It is my understanding that first there are differences between the Red Blood Cells collected from samples for the blood doping practice with the cyclists and the platelets collected for PRP. The cyclists collect whole Red Blood Cells because they increase the body’s capacity to carry oxygen. In PRP they are collecting platelets which are responsible for clotting. It seems that the scientific community would draw distinctions between these two types of plasma (I think.)
The other important distinction seems to be that cyclists inject their substance directly into their veins, while PRP is injected into the affected area, in Hines Ward’s case, his knee. This seems like it might be important because the injection into the veins would directly increase the blood stream’s capacity to carry oxygen, while the PRP injection would concentrate the effect directly to an injured area like a tendon or ligament.
So the question becomes, and I couldn’t find a study that stated anything about this, is whether or not the PRP treatments have any effect on aerobic capacity or not beyond the immediately affected area. Was Hines Ward any more capable to play a full game after his treatment stamina-wise than before the treatment? That will probably ultimately be the deciding factor in how the sports community looks at this new treatment. And maybe studies have already been performed and the morality line has already been drawn. If so, I didn’t find it and I would be happy to hear about it.
But for now, the bottom line can best be described in MythBusters format. If the question was, “Did Hines Ward cheat by getting a PRP treatment prior to the Super Bowl?” my opinion would be that the answer is “Inconclusive” with a heavy lean toward “Busted” he did not cheat. Then again, I am just some dude with a computer in Cleveland talking about sports.