Commentary

Swing and miss

Who won in the Clemens case?

Updated: July 18, 2012, 1:37 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Roger Clemens prosecutionMark SmithThe failed prosecution of Clemens was about more than just one man or one case.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 23, 2012 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

THE COURTROOM IS CLOSED. As U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton told Roger Clemens after a jury acquitted the former pitcher of one count of obstruction of justice, three counts of making false statements and two counts of perjury, "Mr. Clemens, you are free to go."

The Hall of Fame questions will linger far into the future, but the failed prosecution of Clemens represented the final page of a steroids saga that bloodied the record books, diminished faith in the game, exposed some heroes as frauds and produced billions of dollars for a small number of people while wasting tens of millions in taxpayers' money.

In 2004, when then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced indictments in the BALCO case, the government promised a commitment to rid American sports of performance-enhancing drugs and the lawbreaking that went along with them. The government, as a prosecutorial and reform vehicle, entered the steroids era with zeal and optimism: Finally, baseball and its players had to answer to a more powerful body, one that it could not simply lie to and laugh at.

But the feds now look worse than the other components of the crackdown combined. For all of its muscle, its vaunted 90 percent federal conviction rate, the government could produce only a muddy, weak obstruction of justice conviction for Barry Bonds. The longest jail sentence it scored regarding BALCO was 30 months for Troy Ellerman, the defense attorney who leaked grand jury testimony from the Bonds trial.

The prosecutions were all for show. The government followed an old American playbook -- offer the appearance of reform through publicity and committees and focus on a few individual entities (Clemens, Bonds, Major League Baseball) while leaving an entire corrupted system intact.

A common reflex is to criticize the government for involving itself in something as trivial as sports. Don't they have more important things to do? But there is nothing trivial about a multibillion-dollar business that thrives on public money in the form of tax subsidies and profits from the image of being citizens of substance. So it was completely appropriate for the government to intervene as it did. If federal authorities could put three active ballplayers -- Willie Aikens, Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin -- in prison on cocaine charges, as they did in 1983 and '84, then they were also justified in going after professional athletes for purchasing illegal drugs and using them to produce hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves and billions for their employers.

Where government failed was in its lack of commitment, and in the end, the PED story was the opening of another front in a failed 30-year war on drugs. The government didn't want to win, didn't know how to win. On various occasions, both Sen. John McCain and Rep. Henry Waxman threatened a comprehensive overhaul of professional sports; drug testing and administering penalty would be removed from the individual professional sports leagues and be overseen by an outside body like the World or U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Such an action would have required a massive overhaul of some labor principles, because drug testing is generally a workplace issue. It would have required the force and will of the federal government to remove performance-enhancing drugs from American sports. It would have required sustained attention, and it would have reflected a desire to promote real change, win or lose.

Instead, the government spent millions trying to convict a guy with an 11-year-old needle sitting in a beer can. At least MLB, for its $40 million Mitchell Report, produced two main sources of steroids distribution, the discredited Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski. The irony is that baseball, the sport everyone laughed at, actually did the most -- in the form of 100-game suspensions (the NFL hands out four-game drug suspensions with three-sentence news releases and nobody cares) -- but its Hall of Fame is a mess, and so is its preposterous record book.

In any event, the baseball chapter is now closed. The government's failure wasn't in getting started but in not having the guts to finish.

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