Sanctimony's Turn at Bat

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By Colman McCarthy
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's been heralded as a "showdown" -- the appearance of baseball pitcher Roger Clemens before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform tomorrow-- is more likely to be a show. The purpose is to scour for more information regarding the " Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball." In the lingo of dugouts and bullpens, they want to get the dope on doping.

This is the congressional committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, that in recent months has held hearings on the status of corruption in the Iraqi government and the threat of global warming. From matters of statecraft, now it's Roger Clemens's tush. Was he injected with steroids? In a Jan. 7 press conference in Houston, Roger the Rocket asserted that he had used only vitamin B-12 and lidocaine.

Clemens has asked the public to give him "the benefit of the doubt" as he tries to clear his name. I'll benefit. I was delighted when he refused to be bullied by reporters that day. He was angry and defiant, unwilling to hunker down and allow scribes to preen in their favorite role as truth-detectors. The New York Times, out to mow down Clemens with a bean ball, located three " body language analysts" to judge the pitcher's behavior during an interview with "60 Minutes": "The analysts noticed that Clemens swallowed hard, looked down and licked and pursed his lips when answering questions -- all signs, they said, that he might not have been telling the truth."

Hard swallowing, looking down and the rest: That's the gritty Clemens on the mound, a perfectionist throwing baseballs as few ever have. Why be different because it is reporters, not batters, you are up against?

This is the second time members of Congress have posed as drug-busters cleaning up the great American pastime. Except that drug use -- whether involving legal or illegal drugs -- already is the American pastime, and it is far bigger than baseball.

I'm hoping that Roger Clemens polls the members of Waxman's committee on their use of performance-enhancing drugs. Start with Viagra. Or Cialis, ready for action "when the moment is right" -- say, a congressman stumbling home after a late-night floor vote on an earmark bill. Clemens might ask the members how many need shots of caffeine drugs to get themselves up and out every morning. He might ask the members how often they reach for another shot of Jack Daniels to enhance their performance while grubbing for bucks from lobbyists at fundraisers. And before leaving Capitol Hill, he should grill the allegedly clean-living baseball reporters on how many of them sit in the press box enhancing their bodies with alcohol, nicotine and caffeine drugs. And a blunt or two when night games go extra innings and deadline nerves need steadying.

I see steroids, and all drugs, as an issue of personal freedom. Is there a difference between fans at big-league baseball games stoned on alcohol while cheering athletes on the base paths juiced with steroids? What's the difference between scoring with Viagra and scoring with steroids? What's the difference between people freely abusing their bodies with one drug but not another, as long as no one else is harmed and the consequences are self-sustained?

No difference but one. Some protectors of the public good -- reluctantly, the 30 big-league team owners and now the Waxman committee and the sanctimonious sports media posing as guardians of baseball's purity -- have decreed a crackdown. Go get 'em, Congress. Pass a law.

First, though, let's check in with calmer legal minds. In the 5 to 4 decision last summer that upheld the suspension of an Alaskan high school student for holding a sign -- "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" -- during a parade, a dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "The current dominant opinion supporting the war on drugs in general, and our anti-marijuana laws in particular, is reminiscent of the opinion that supported the nationwide ban on alcohol consumption when I was a student. While alcoholic beverages are now regarded as ordinary articles of commerce, their use was then condemned with the same moral fervor that now supports the war on drugs."

Any chance of this wisdom seeping in? Don't hold your breathalyzer.

Colman McCarthy, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace. He teaches at Georgetown University Law Center, American University and three public high schools.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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