Commentary

Roger Clemens verdict no surprise

One summary of the trial: People are tired of the government chasing PED cases

Updated: June 19, 2012, 9:25 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

There's not much left to say about our federal government's inability to figure out how to win a case against a high-profile athlete, but it wouldn't be a bad idea for all concerned if they just packed up all their doodle-filled legal pads and easily impeached witness lists, and moved on to more pressing matters. You know, like just about anything.

This time, the feds got slapped around by Roger Clemens and a defense team led by Rusty Hardin. Let that marinate in your brain for a little bit. Remember, Clemens once refuted any thought that he did steroids because he didn't have a third ear growing out of his forehead. Hardin presided over that bizarre July 2008 news conference, in which Clemens stormed out of the room but only after the playing of a tape of a phone conversation between the pitcher and trainer Brian McNamee that was recorded without McNamee's consent and revealed on national television that McNamee's son suffered from a serious illness.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens, Rusty Hardin
Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesRoger Clemens, represented by Rusty Hardin, beat the federal charges.

These guys, this group of well-paid bumpkins, defeated the government, and it wasn't even close. They won easily. All that money spent, all those years investigating, and the feds couldn't even force the jury to deliberate for more than 10 hours. Clemens, not guilty on all six counts of perjury, obstructing justice and making false statements. The only thing missing from the verdict was the slightest element of surprise.

The feds' track record is abysmal. They dropped the charges against Lance Armstrong after a lengthy and expensive investigation. They won a very minor, nearly microscopic victory over Barry Bonds. And now this. If you look back over the last 4½ years of the Clemens investigation, including the earlier mistrial, there's only one pertinent question: What was the point?

Lying to Congress is a significant crime, but you have to hang your hopes on more than the two or three frayed strands of McNamee's reputation. The trainer admitted on the stand that his recollection of the events in question "evolved over time," which is about the only sentence a prosecutor would need to hear before the trial to cap the pen, shake the man's hand and drop the case. Instead, the federal prosecutor told the jury that McNamee is "a flawed man." And that's the ghost of Clarence Darrow you hear moaning in the wind.

Jurors fell asleep. The lead prosecutor prefaced a line of interrogation by telling a witness, "I want to ask you some questions about pus." Ten weeks of sheer tedium leading to an inevitable acquittal.

(And this comes close on the heels of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's decision to charge Armstrong with doping. USADA has no power to press criminal charges, so this is a mostly ornamental effort to strip him of his Tour de France victories and keep him from competing in any future competitions. The testimony in the case figures to be a classic in the genre of dopers versus dopers, and it figures to do nothing to change anyone's opinion of Armstrong. But if USADA thinks it has the goods on Lance, more power to it. Just don't expect much.)

In keeping with his persona, Hardin amped up the hyperbole in his post-verdict news conference. He said Clemens is "not only a seven-time Cy Young winner; he's a hell of a man." (See McCready, Mindy for possible counterargument.) He said, "It got to the point where people thought arrogance was a man saying he didn't do it." (In this situation, it's safe to say the verdict is indicative of the prosecution's inability to prove the case, rather than "he didn't do it.") And he said, "HGH and steroids was cheating, and it was totally contrary to the man's character." (Oh, hell, let Rusty have his moment before he goes back to trying personal-injury cases.)

The Clemens jury professed to care very little about baseball, but it was perfectly emblematic of those of us who do. The whole performance-enhancing drug madness of the past decade has run its course. Testing, the ultimate byproduct of the era, has served to quell much of the anger. We just don't care the way we used to, whether through sheer fatigue or disgust. You have to work pretty hard to make Clemens into a sympathetic figure, but somehow this whole sideshow managed to come pretty close to achieving it.

Apropos of nothing, Clemens stood at the microphone Monday and said, "I put a lot of hard work into that career." There is no debating that, and hard work is not now -- and never was -- a debatable point. PEDs clearly prolong careers and earning power, but they aren't a substitute for hard work. They are, in a way, accessories to hard work. It's a common refrain for athletes on trial -- Clemens, Bonds, Armstrong -- to take this particular red herring out for a walk any time they can. It's a shell game of semantics.

At this point, we've heard it all, from both sides and through our two (or three, depending) ears. We believe what we believe, and no jury verdict or poorly run prosecution is going to change that. The case against Clemens should have been dropped after the previous mistrial. Maybe something good can come of this. Maybe the gig is up on the national perversion with bringing justice from the playing field to the courtroom.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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