Let Us Now Raze Famous Men

Roger Clemens may be a liar and a cheat, but the case against him is more about political gain.
Roger Clemens may be a liar and a cheat, but the case against him is more about political gain. (By Scott A. Miller -- Getty Images)
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By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Concerned as I may be about our nation's cheerfully amoral youth, it's hard to see how these unceasing steroid investigations are sending the right message to the kids. Federal agents will now devote untold additional tax dollars to proving that Roger Clemens is Roger Clemens, while Clemens's dealer gets let off -- for which they will be hailed as a bunch of Eliot Nesses. A lot of things may come out of this, but truth and justice aren't among them. If Congress and government prosecutors really care about cleaning up steroids, why are they being harder on the users than their connections?

The people who invented, manufactured, distributed, sold and administered the steroids in question have gotten little or no jail time. Meantime, the FBI has launched a full-scale probe of Clemens for being a perjuring hubristic blowhard; former track star Marion Jones will surrender Tuesday to begin a six-month sentence for misleading investigators; and Barry Bonds is fighting five felony counts for allegedly lying to a grand jury in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case, charges so excessive that a federal judge threw them out last week and is making the government rewrite them.

It's tempting to say all three of the people under discussion are indefensible. They are cheats and liars. Fine. But even guilty people deserve commensurate treatment under the law. Somewhere along the line, we drifted into the territory of vengeance and political gain, not righteousness.

The fact is, any number of public figures, starting with Big Tobacco executives, have told much bigger lies to Congress than Clemens did, and none faced perjury charges. You want a brazen, damaging public lie? How about, "Tobacco isn't addictive"?

There are several fallacies at work in these steroid cases, and one is that the athletes are being treated no different than anyone who dares lie to the government. In fact, the Justice Department almost never pursues perjury. It charged just 99 people with the crime in 2006, out of more than 88,000 federal defendants. Between 2001 and 2006, 566 perjury cases were filed -- about 1 percent of all criminal charges. Cases brought before the federal criminal justice system are supposed to be top-notch in quality, and of overriding size and importance.

Unless, of course, the defendant is famous.

If you want a crystal-clear picture of the government's real priorities, look at its treatment of the men who actually trafficked in steroids. Kirk J. Radomski, who was perhaps one of the biggest steroid suppliers in Major League Baseball, will never spend a day in jail. He was offered an extraordinarily generous plea deal: probation for drug distribution and money laundering. Remy Korchemny, a track coach responsible for doping scores of athletes worldwide, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor and received no jail time. Patrick Arnold, the bodybuilding chemist who invented the drugs at the heart of the Balco scandal, got just three months. Victor Conte, the president and mastermind of Balco, did four months. James Valente, the vice president of Balco, did no jail time at all.

But the real peach is Brian McNamee, the admitted steroid dealer who has insisted he injected Clemens. The federal government has promised not to file a single charge against him, in exchange for his naming of headline names. This is a guy who a few years ago was investigated for having sex in a hotel pool with a woman who somehow ingested the date-rape drug. He was never charged for that, either.

Normally the government doesn't go after the drug users; it wants the sellers and distributors. But in this situation it's the inverse. It flies in the face of any sensible anti-drug effort. Something is fundamentally wrong. Everything is backward. What are we doing?

Making an example out of people, obviously. And perhaps building political careers.

The standard government rationale is that prosecuting these athletes is a matter of "protecting our youth," because when sports heroes use steroids it "sends the wrong message." This is another fallacy. The majority of steroid users are non- athletes. A study of 2,000 American men who used anabolic steroids published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2007 found that only 6 percent of respondents used steroids for bodybuilding or sports; the majority used them to improve their attractiveness.

In the rank of drug cases, steroid usage is in the same class legally as taking Valium or Vicodin without a legitimate prescription, something legions of Americans do every day. We don't haul those people in front of grand juries, nor do we throw the full weight of the government at them. But because the subject is sports, it's seen as an offense against the American character.

The judge in Jones's sentencing admitted as much. Why is Jones about to go to prison when the vast majority of first-time offenders who strike similar plea deals get probation? Even the prosecution agreed that no jail time was acceptable in her case. But the judge, Kenneth M. Karas, went so far beyond customary sentencing practice, it was chilling. Karas, a product of Georgetown and Columbia Law and a former New York City prosecutor, berated Jones for her "exalted status" as an athlete. His underlying reasoning for her unusually harsh sentence -- that she was a "role model" -- had zero to do with her actual offense. Now, it's hard to think of anyone with more exalted status than someone who went to an Ivy League law school.

Clearly, we've moved beyond any legitimate public interest and into the realm of the personal motivations of prosecutors and judges.

The pursuit of perjury charges does nothing to crack down on steroid use; in fact, a close observer could easily conclude that there's little risk in the manufacture and distribution of these substances, because you can always sell out your more famous clients and dodge real trouble. You have to ask what the government was hoping to accomplish, other than grandstanding.

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