Singling Out A Double Standard

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The feds are going after all those asterisked pitchers and batters, aren't they? They're going to subpoena the Cy Youngs and most valuable players, and demand the return of the trophies and the money, right? They better. That, or show some leniency toward Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. Otherwise, it's going to beg an ugly question: Why are Jones and Bonds picking up the most expensive tab for performance enhancing? Why are they cheats and criminals, while others merely made "mistakes"?

Are prosecutors going to convene a grand jury, and call Roger Clemens (white man)? Will they pursue him across a half-decade until they force either perjury or a public confession from him? Are IRS investigators going to dog Kevin Brown (white man) and Chuck Knoblauch (white man) with the same Inspector Javert-like fervor? Will they audit bank accounts, grill confidants and lean on informants?

Will spectators and commentators have the same flaying, foam-flecked rage for Rick Ankiel (white man) and Andy Pettitte (white man)? Will we hear demands from (white) officialdom that their names be expunged forever from the books, that they be stripped of honors and bankrupted, reviled as the cheats of the century?

Why is it that our most severe penalties and public condemnations are reserved for Bonds (black man) and Jones (black woman)?

There's a nasty double standard here, and it can't be conveniently explained away. The rationalizations don't cut it. Yes, Jones used steroids and lied to investigators. Yes, Bonds's record may be tainted and he may have perjured himself. But the guess here is that there are some serial cheaters among the 92 ballplayers listed in George Mitchell's report, who might perjure themselves in similar circumstances. Yet none of them will face any investigative heat. If the feds intended to follow up, they wouldn't have given their case away to Mitchell for publication, or cut a deal with clubhouse parasite Kirk Radomski. The Mitchell report is the sanction, despite Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig's promise that he will act. All that means is, he'll knit his eyebrows.

Justice hasn't been meted out equally. That's indisputable, whether or not you believe race had anything to do with it. Jones and Bonds face potential jail time for lying; meantime, hundreds of major leaguers stonewalled and evaded Mitchell's investigation, and they get -- what? Amnesty, and a mild scolding from the president.

It's funny, isn't it, how we aren't nearly so censorious now that some of the users are hometown favorites. Members of every single team in the majors, players whom all of us can feel some empathy for, and kinship with.

Suddenly, we're inclined to ask for their explanations, listen to their excuses and extend the benefit of the doubt. Mitchell even suggested that we let bygones be bygones, because, "What we need to do is look forward now." I don't recall such feelings of concern, consideration or kinship for Bonds and Jones.

Yours truly was guilty of excoriating Bonds when he chased Hank Aaron's home run record. It was easy to tear into him as a suspected cheat -- he was a distant, surly figure. I simply wasn't inclined to listen to him the way I do my friend and colleague Lance Armstrong, my perception of whom is colored by personal affection. Armstrong has a powerful commonality; everyone's been sick. He's easy to relate to. My feeling that he's been unfairly accused should have made me more sensitive to the possibility in Bonds's case. But it didn't.

If the Mitchell report creates a new willingness to listen, to have a discussion about sports doping that's more nuanced and forgiving, if it results in greater consideration for Bonds and clemency for Jones, then it will have done some good.

In the past couple of days, there's been a new effort to parse the issues behind doping. The naming of so many seems to have created a dawning sense that rabid prosecution can create worse miscarriages than the original offense. There's an uneasiness with evidence that came from prosecutors chasing big-name players like antlers for their walls, cutting deals with informers to name as many names as possible. Should we judge all 92 people on the list as the same, when the evidence against some is clearly flimsy, others were merely one-time users and scores aren't even named? Pettitte says he used human growth hormone just twice, in an effort to recover from an elbow injury. What should we make of that?

Is there legitimate therapeutic use for some of these things? Should we judge on a sliding scale? If so, that invites a world of problems in terms of telling right from wrong, fair from unfair, pure from impure, natural from artificial. But maybe we should address those problems rather than subscribe to the draconian World Anti-Doping Agency code, which treats all transgressors the same, punishes an Andy Pettitte no different from Marion Jones and tolerates errors in labs but not in humans.

The whole nature of the enhancement and artificiality in sports needs more candor. Not an investigation that unfairly criminalizes the issue, but rather seeks to truly understand the motives and problems of athletes. Are there dosages that aren't harmful to one's health? What does, and doesn't, actually enhance performance? Why did Marion Jones's times actually get slower on Balco products? Why did Miguel Tejada's slugging percentage decrease for three straight years? If an aging player uses HGH simply to recover from injury, or to prolong his career, to keep his job, is that really cheating?

Athletes sacrifice their long-term health on a daily basis -- they train to the point of breakdown, play hurt and are gnarled by arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Maybe they need some help. Maybe "performance enhancement" is a nonsensical term that doesn't describe most of what's going on.

Here's a fear. One day we might look back over our shoulders and realize that we created our own generational versions of Jim Thorpe. In 1912, Thorpe was singled out and punished for "sullying" the Olympics. He was found to be "impure" and stripped of his medals because he wasn't an amateur, but rather had played two summers of baseball for money. The practice was utterly pervasive. But Thorpe was the only one disgraced for it, because it was easier, and more emotionally satisfying, to punish an Indian than all the Yalies who did the very same thing. Thirty or fifty years from now, let's hope we aren't similarly ashamed.

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