The mistrial that has been declared today in the federal perjury trial of former baseball great Roger Clemens is an apt moment for both the government and the public to reassess Washington’s ongoing efforts to prosecute suspected steroid users. Now that the wave of superficial moral outrage against those who used so-called performance enhancing drugs is petering out, it is to be hoped that more Americans will see the enormous effort being expended by the federal government to punish men like Barry Bonds, Clemens and cycling star Lance Armstrong as prosecutorial overkill.
Let’s stipulate upfront that steroids are bad and the use of an illegal substance that may or may not actually help you win games or races is not a good thing. But it should never have been made a federal issue, let alone the launching point for a crusade to imprison famous athletes. The government has yet to demonstrate why the use of these substances is so terrible that it justifies the enormous resources that have been marshaled in order to build cases against Bonds, Clemens and Armstrong.
This effort, which was launched by a passage in President George W. Bush’s 2004 State of the Union Address, was initially well-intentioned but misguided from the start. Though Bush and others who have pontificated on the subject claim it posed a danger to children, even if we accept that premise, it is minuscule when compared to hundreds of other possible threats to kids who play sports. The notion this is some sort of national peril was always a myth. But it was a myth that has served to justify the expenditure of a great deal of time, effort and money on the part of both Congress and the Justice Department to try and set up perjury traps for these players and then put them in jail for evasive statements or attempts to defend their tattered reputations.
Let’s understand the real reason why politicians and U.S. attorneys subjected these men to a full-court press. It is because prosecuting wealthy, obnoxious athletes generates enormous publicity, which is something both members of Congress and federal prosecutors live for. No real purpose was served by the decade-long struggle of the Department of Justice to convict home run king Barry Bonds of something. In the end, he was acquitted of lying to a federal grand jury but inexplicably convicted of obstructing justice. The same can be said of the effort to nail Clemens, because he contradicted the testimony of a former trainer who, unlike Barry Bonds’ longtime assistant, readily dropped the dime on the pitching great in exchange for being let off on charges of distributing the illegal drugs.
In both these cases, the prosecutors did something unorthodox. In drug trials, it is usually the traffickers who are considered the villains, and the users, the victims, even if they are not necessarily innocent. But in these instances, the justice system has focused its efforts on crucifying the users, a decision motivated solely by the increased notoriety a trial of a famous athlete would generate.
The point isn’t to justify the athletes’ bad behavior but to understand the disproportionate effort to make them pay a federal criminal penalty is both bad law and bad public policy. Speak ill all you like of these three and deprive them–if you think it justified–of the honors they received. But let’s take the government out of this equation.