It ended quietly on a Friday afternoon as embarrassing moments for the government often do so as to minimize press attention. The announcement that the federal investigation of former cycling great Lance Armstrong over allegations of using performance-enhancing drugs had collapsed was largely ignored. It came in the form of a statement from the office of the United States Attorney for the Central District of California. No reason was cited for the decision. Neither the U.S. Attorney nor other government figures, such as investigator Jeff Novitzky, who were not shy about publicizing their pursuit of Armstrong in recent years, bothered to comment. Thus, the employees of several federal agencies who were involved in pursuing the vendetta against the seven-time Tour de France champion will perhaps now return to more useful work that will be a better way to spend the taxpayers’ money. Armstrong will continue his charity work on behalf of cancer research without the distraction of being sent to jail hanging over his head.
But this should not pass without comment.
Like the other prosecutions stemming from the federal government’s decision a few years ago to treat the possible use of steroids and other drugs by athletes as if it were a major criminal offense if not a threat to public health, the Armstrong investigation was an absurd diversion from the Justice Department’s proper job of pursuing criminals. Armstrong was luckier than previous targets of the federal steroid zealot posse like baseball legends Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. The legal house of cards upon which the case against him was predicated collapsed even before an indictment could be coaxed out of a pliant grand jury. Yet the hounding of Armstrong showed what could happen when a trophy hunting prosecutor sets off to punish the supposed sins of a rich, famous person whose imprisonment can be made into a public spectacle.
It should be stipulated that the use of performance enhancing drugs is wrong as is all cheating in sports. Just as in the case of some baseball players who have been hauled into court on steroid use, if it can be proved that Armstrong broke the rules of competition, he deserves censure by his sport. The effects of PEDs in cycling are probably far more decisive than in a skill sport like baseball. Nevertheless, the notion that such drugs can create a champion is nonsense. Most of those who have been caught using PEDs are mediocrities who remained mediocre even after taking the drugs. As Steven Goldman wrote in an incisive takedown of the zealots in COMMENTARY back in 2009, “These drugs are neither Peter Parker’s radioactive spider nor Popeye’s can of spinach.” The line between advanced medical procedures and treatment and the chemistry of PEDs is also getting blurrier.
But even if we assume the worst about the steroids users and the impact of drugs on the games they play, that still leaves us with a far more important question with reference to the congressional investigations and federal prosecutions that emanated from President Bush’s ill-advised reference to the issue in his 2004 State of the Union address. Why is this is a federal or even a government issue?
It is true that use of these drugs without a prescription is illegal. But since when has that sort of minor offense been treated as a government priority that required several U.S. attorneys and their staffs and an army of federal investigators to devote themselves to the enforcement of prescription laws? It was only the lure of the publicity attaching to the prosecution of famous baseball players or a figure of international standing like Armstrong that generated the government’s interest in these cases.
The pretexts for the federal anti-steroids crusade were ludicrous. The idea put forward that there was an epidemic of steroids use among high school athletes was unsupported by any evidence. On the list of afflictions of America’s youth, PED use was near the bottom. Other charges, such as the one that Armstrong had somehow defrauded the government because the U.S. Post Office sponsored his team, were equally ridiculous. Armstrong delivered excellent value for his sponsor even if he did so while bending or breaking the rules of his sport. Actually a better question to be asked about that relationship was what was a government agency doing spending taxpayer money sponsoring a bicycle team competing in France?
And what did the government produce for the millions spent on the pursuit of these athletes and the lengthy investigations and trials they produced? In the end, the answer was very little. After years of effort the best Bay Area prosecutors could do to Bonds was to convict him on one dubious count of obstructing justice for which he will serve no time in prison even if the conviction is not overturned on appeal. Clemens faces a re-trial after prosecutors forced a mistrial in order to cover up a legal blunder. A few other athletes were humiliated and some were even jailed for short periods. Armstrong, who may never have failed a certified drug test and always maintained his innocence, had his reputation destroyed. But none of this did the public any good, let alone provide a justification for the enormous sums spent on this athletic witch-hunt.
Let us hope Barack Obama’s Justice Department is at last putting this foolishness to rest. Let the various sports officials police their games in any way they think fit, but this is an issue that both Congress and the Justice Department should avoid in the future.