In 2005, the House Government Reform Committee conducted a public hearing regarding the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB). Yesterday, a trial against former MLB star Roger Clemens based on his alleged perjury during that hearing ended in a mistrial, just a few months after a mistrial in the Barry Bonds case a few months ago, leaving the government looking incompetent and imprudent.
Contrary to popular opinion I believed that the unusual step of Congress intervening in the affairs of professional sports league was warranted. I didn’t buy the argument that Congress shouldn’t have gotten involved because they had more important things to do than hold congressional hearings on the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball or that the U.S. Attorney’s office had more pressing cases to try than perjury charges stemming from those hearings and other investigations.
Obviously, Congress had more important issues to deal with, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising national debt, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have addressed the use of PEDs in baseball as well. Should a physician refuse to treat a patient with a cough or a sprained ankle because he has other patients with more severe conditions like chest pains or pneumonia? Should the police ignore domestic violence and petty theft claims because they have rapes and murders to deal with? I’m sure there were also members of Congress who pushed the issue as a way to gain favor with their constituents, but that doesn’t mean their actions were unjustified.
The PED problem in baseball needed to be addressed by Congress. Their involvement was necessitated by the unwillingness of the people running MLB, from the commissioner’s office to the team owners, to deal with the problem. Steroid use in baseball is a serious issue, not only because of what PEDs do to the athletes’ bodies, but also because of the influence professional athletes have on children and the culture at large.
The major problem with the Congressional hearing was that six players testified, compared to just four baseball executives and zero team owners. The players who used PEDs were certainly culpable, but they received a disproportionate amount of the blame from Congress and the media. In order for an epidemic to become institutionalized, as PED use in baseball was, those in charge must be complicit in the conspiracy and should be held accountable.
The suggestion that the commissioner’s office and team management had no idea this behavior was going on is ludicrous. The players’ appearances changed, from their muscles to their hat size. Mediocre middle infielders began hitting 30-40 home runs a year and there were rumblings about steroid use inside several locker rooms. Jason Giambi’s agent insisted that the Yankees remove a boilerplate clause from his contract stating that it could be voided in the event that he tested positive for steroids.
Once the hearing was over, I believe the U.S. Attorney’s Office was warranted in pursuing a case against Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada for lying to Congress (Clemens at the above-mentioned hearing and Tejada when speaking to the house committee later in 2005, regarding his connections to Rafael Palmeiro’s PED use. Tejada pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in 2009 and received one year of probation) and Barry Bonds for lying to a grand jury.
I’m well aware that trials such as the ones involving Clemens and Bonds require a substantial allocation of money and man hours, which could be used for other things, but the analogies I used earlier of the doctor and police officer still apply. Both alleged crimes were a direct challenge to the authority of institutions which are essential to the stability of our society and the perpetrators need to be held accountable in order to maintain the credibility of those institutions.
The catch is that the prosecution must be sure they have enough evidence to prove the charges before they bring a case and then try the case effectively. The U.S. Attorney’s Office typically clears those hurdles. With the power of the federal government behind them they have a tremendous number of resources at their disposal and don’t bring a case to trial unless they’re extremely confident they can secure a guilty verdict. According to the Department of Justice, 94.1 percent of federal prosecutors’ cases resolved in 2009 ended with a conviction.
The case against Barry Bonds stemmed from his grand jury testimony in 2003 regarding charges against a suspected steroid dealer, in which he allegedly lied about his use of PEDs. When the allegations against Bonds first became public he was viewed as a villain and Americans was engaged in the issue, but while the government took eight years to build their case, even sports fan grew indifferent towards the steroid scandal and the pending Bonds and Clemens trials.
The case against Bonds began to fall apart pre-trial, when crucial pieces of evidence were deemed inadmissible. Perhaps, the government should have cut their losses and dropped the case then, but they decided to go forward. Though Bonds was convicted on one charge of obstruction of justice, the prosecution failed to convince all 12 jurors that he was guilty on three counts of lying to the grand jury. The hung jury and resulting mistrial was a public relations nightmare for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The government’s second big perjury case against a baseball icon fell apart due to incompetence. The Clemens trial, which began on Wednesday, was declared a mistrial by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton yesterday morning after the prosecution introduced evidence which had previously been deemed inadmissible by the court. We may never know how strong the government’s case against Clemens was.
One has to wonder if real or imagined pressure from Congress, the Justice Department, or a superior at the U.S. Attorney’s office influenced the attorneys on these cases to bring them to trial against their better judgment. Now they’re left to decide whether they should pursue a re-trial of Bonds, Clemens or both, as public opinion continues to mount against what’s perceived as a waste of time and taxpayer money during a recession.
The government’s immersion into the MLB steroid scandal did reap some positive results. Baseball was forced to adopt more stringent PED testing and disciplinary measures. It was the scope of the investigation and the botched aftermath which backfired in their face. Only the federal government could jump into a situation with the best of intentions and public support behind them and come out looking like fools.