A cheer for sports' rats and snitches

Drew Litton/ESPN.com

I know it isn't hip to say this, but I love a good snitch. Let's hear it for the rats among us. Every now and then, there's just no doing without a good, old-fashioned bigmouth, even the ones who don't rediscover their consciences or razor-sharp memories until the feds are banging down the door.

Snitches might not be choirboys or even remotely likable. (Think Jose Canseco.) But most snitches wouldn't know the dirt they do without previously wallowing in the mud themselves. That's no reason to disqualify what they say.

If anything, that's precisely the narrow thinking that gives snitches a bad name when we should be thanking them for, say, alerting us that the current, under-the-table price for a blue-chip college quarterback such as Cam Newton is about $180,000 -- the amount a man claiming to represent Newton's dad, Cecil, tried to extract from a Mississippi State booster last year. One hundred and eighty grand? Who knew?

For that kind of cake, you could buy a fine crib near the campus in Starkville. Or even a powerboat.

I was thinking about snitches the other day because the U.S. District Court judge presiding over Barry Bonds' never-ending perjury case just allowed this fascinating secret recording of Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, to be admitted as evidence into Bonds' trial, which could start in early March. The recording, prosecutors say, features Anderson bragging in a low whisper to the husband of Bonds' former personal assistant about a specially created steroid that Bonds used. The money quote: "You can take [it] the day of [the drug test], pee, and it comes up perfect."

If the Mitchell report aspires to be baseball's official written version of the steroids era, the extended version of the Anderson recording could be the official soundtrack.

Prosecutors think it's the smoking gun against Bonds that they haven't been able to get from Anderson directly because he has refused to testify against Bonds or anyone else for years. Anderson even went to prison for more than a year as a result -- and might yet again -- which has made him something of a hero to the anti-snitch crowd. But not me.

I'd argue that there can be honor in being a rat, imperfect as some of them are. If Bonds really did use designer steroids, do you really want him being able to walk around preening about how he displaced Hank Aaron as the best home run hitter of all time? Since Mark McGwire's admission in the spring, can we now forget McGwire hugging Roger Maris' sons like some Judas the night he took their dad's record? Do you want Olympic sprinters to think they had to take steroids just to compete? (If not, thank Trevor Graham for sending a syringe with previously undetectable THG to anti-doping officials.) Do you want to shrug off the possibility that similarly undetectable drug use contributes to the fact that the life expectancy of ex-NFL players is only about 55?

I don't have much use for the snitches behind "gotcha" stories like what Jerry Jones said about Bill Parcells late some night in a bar. But other snitches have given us vital information over the years about unsolved mysteries or even crimes that might have never been exposed. Snitches can perform a public service by illuminating whole new worlds or subcultures, stunning displays of deceit or buffoonery.

It seems almost quaint now how surprised we were that Brett Favre and Tiger Woods, two aggressively self-promoted family guys, weren't the husbands we had thought. Cyclist Lance Armstrong might not be, either, if some talkative past teammates of his can be believed.

Snitches can give us a clearer read on whom to lionize -- or not.

Think of that mook, Tommy Gioiosa, who dropped the dime on Pete Rose for betting on baseball. Consider how Spygate altered perceptions of just how driven to win New England coach Bill Belichick really is. Kiddingly ask whether Sports Illustrated should've started drug-testing its swimsuit-issue models after Roger Clemens threw his wife, Debbie, under the bus and had her admit before Congress to taking HGH injections from trainer Brian McNamee for a bikini shoot she and the Rocket did for SI in 2003. (If not then, girls, when?)

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl used to get a lot of mileage out of people thinking he was among that brave but dwindling group, The Last Upstanding Men in College Basketball. Twenty years ago, when Pearl was a young Iowa assistant, he reported Illinois' possibly illegal recruitment of a player named Deon Thomas. The footnote was that for his show of principle, poor Pearl was blackballed within the game for years.

It took Pearl 15 years to re-establish himself near the top of Division I but only six seasons after his big promotion to Tennessee to succumb to the temptations or survival pressure and push the rules himself. Pearl admitted he lied last year and actively tried to cover up excessive phone calls to recruits and use of unauthorized phones. The SEC suspended him, and the NCAA is considering how to punish him, too.

I know a lot of people look at snitches and say they're as morally repugnant as the people they're accusing. And sometimes that's true.

The more genteel term "whistle-blower" is usually reserved for someone who isn't involved in the activity he reports on, whereas someone like Canseco, who cashed in with tell-all books, is a rat. But at least he's a useful rat.

Canseco helped crack open the halfhearted inquiries into baseball's sprawling steroid scandal.

Still, the Canseco issue -- bad guy/good rat -- highlights how there are such things as Good Snitches, Bad Snitches and Accidental Snitches, too.

The Clemens case alone could inspire a game called "Rate the Snitch." Do you start at ground zero and nominate former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski? He first told the feds about McNamee, which caused McNamee to get so scared about prison time that he sang about his former Yankees clients Clemens and Andy Pettitte, who never would have had to tell Congress all he knows about Clemens' HGH use, not just his own, if Clemens hadn't railed so indignantly to some pals in Congress about being named in the Mitchell report. Congress finally subpoenaed all three of them for a little talk -- under oath.

Pettitte, who recently disputed rumors that he retired this offseason partly because he might have to testify at Clemens' trial during this season, is technically a snitch -- but he's a reluctant snitch perhaps on his way to an ulcer.

The steroid scandals have been soul-deadening at times, not just a colorful insight into the secret lives of jocks or whether our government should be prosecuting some juiced-up sluggers and sprinters at all. But without baseball's forced introspection, there would have been no push for stricter drug testing across the major sports. It's a health issue, not just a sports issue or ethical issue. Sports shouldn't be allowed to coddle or encourage some gladiatorial class of drug users and frauds.

So let's hear it for the snitches.

It's somehow affirming to see that someone like Bonds or Clemens or even a church pastor like Cecil Newton can't get away with everything just because he's more cynical or politically connected, richer or more egotistical than all of us dopes still trying to play by the rules.

By now, maybe you even love a good snitch, too.

Tell everyone you know.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.