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Legacies, legalities an unhealthy mix for accused athletes

June 20, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze


San Francisco Chronicle

The knee-jerk questions arose within minutes of Roger Clemens' acquittal:

Will he be voted into the Hall of Fame when his name makes its first appearance on the ballot this winter? Could he be inducted, though Barry Bonds, also eligible for the first time, is rejected because of his conviction on an obstruction charge in a similar case last year?

This fixation on legacies ignores how they are created. The difference between a jury verdict and a Hall of Fame vote is, and should be, vast. Reasonable doubt about guilt clears a defendant. Reasonable doubt about greatness steers a player away from Cooperstown.

The Hall of Fame obsession also obscures the bigger issues. Will this defeat encourage the federal government to retreat from its fight against performance-enhancing drugs and their attendant culture of deceit? And, if the feds dial back their commitment, will sports leagues and their anti-doping arms be able to pick up the slack?

The government already had started retreating from this campaign well before the Clemens verdict Monday. The lead prosecutor in Southern California pulled the plug on a two-year grand-jury investigation of Lance Armstrong. The question of if Armstrong juiced his way to seven Tour de France titles now belongs to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, theoretically the ideal venue for the inquiry.

Clemens' perjury and obstruction charges stemmed directly from the government's first major effort to bail out of the doping-cop business.

When the case into athletic drug use began at Burlingame, Calif.'s BALCO lab in 2003, investigators went after the distributors - flunkies, really - and targeted the wealthy athletes only as witnesses, granting them immunity in return for honest testimony. When some of them, including Bonds, spun apparent fiction under oath, the prosecutors had to file charges.

Of the six athletes and one coach accused of obstruction or lying to federal investigators about doping, only Clemens beat the rap. Marion Jones almost avoided prosecution - but then she got involved in a check-fraud scheme, and the rest of her slimy behavior oozed into the open.

Clemens was unique in another way. No one else volunteered to be a witness.

He responded with vehement denials to the 2007 Mitchell Report, which branded him a PED user.

The government had backed the report, compiled under the authority of former Sen. George Mitchell, in the hope that federal investigators could help Major League Baseball purge the sins of the "steroid era" and move on. In lieu of prosecuting suppliers such as Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee, the feds made them cooperate with Mitchell.

McNamee, Clemens' personal trainer, became his accuser.

Clemens' determination forced the issue. Neither he nor McNamee, who also appeared, came across well that February day in Washington. Mc-Namee, much like some of the main witnesses in the Bonds case, clearly hated being there. For the accusers, testimony would cost them access to famous, charismatic athletes. In fact, some of them ultimately might have preferred jail time to testifying - the option chosen by Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson.

The government considered the loyal Anderson critical to its case, but won a guilty verdict without him. The turncoat McNamee, whose credibility on the witness stand was savaged by the defense, ultimately helped Clemens go free.

In theory, Clemens' shady testimony on Capitol Hill could have been overlooked. But that would have required imposing a double standard, compared not only with Bonds, but with Tammy Thomas, Dana Stubblefield, Miguel Tejada and Trevor Graham. They all had been charged with some form of manipulating the truth in the doping investigation, and pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury. The cycle had to continue.

The USADA case against Arm-strong could represent a critical shift away from the criminal courts and investigators. But without the subpoena power and financial resources of the federal government, some of the evidence against him might not have been collected. Minus the government's BALCO files, USADA might not have found the information that led to the bans of at least six American track-and-field athletes before the 2004 Olympics.

So what happens next? The Cooperstown dilemma shouldn't be part of that discussion.

Contact Gwen Knapp at Twitter: @gwenknapp.



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