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Punishing Liars, Avoiding Truth

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Miguel Tejada will apparently plead guilty today to fibbing to Congress about steroids. Alex Rodriguez has acknowledged committing a vague, temporary steroids offense. These piecemeal public confessions don't get us any closer to the truth.

Such carefully crafted partial admissions don't provide any closure or sense that the real problem is solved. Why? Because the athletes aren't the issue, that's why. Their mea culpas don't give us any relief because they are just more half-truths, heaped upon a larger central lie, which is that this is a sports affliction. The fact is, we can't stop the use of performance enhancers by punishing athletes for it, any more than going after bootleggers during Prohibition made people quit drinking.

Putting athletes on trial for their performance-enhancement habits, or for lying about it, only creates a larger cycle of untruth. Performance-enhancing drugs are a culture issue, not a baseball, football or track issue. By chastising athletes for it, aren't we really hindering our ability to get at the whole truth? And isn't the larger, truer question whether the majority of the public even views "performance enhancement" as particularly criminal?

It's a fundamental question, for instance, whether Major League Baseball has a larger performance-enhancement problem than Hollywood, and whether athletes use more artificial aids in the performance of their jobs than Sylvester Stallone. Congress's public grandstanding against baseball has created the impression that it's somehow worse than other leagues, or professions. But are pitchers and hitters bigger frauds than, say, politicians? A show of hands, please: How many people think Tejada is a worse liar than a member of Congress or a cigarette company executive? And while we're asking questions, who cheated America more, Marion Jones or John Thain of Merrill Lynch?

And don't tell me that these criminal prosecutions of athletes are really about perjury. There are two separate issues here: steroid use and lying under oath. One is a debatable misdemeanor, the other a substantive offense. But the latter is clearly being used as a method of punishing the former. Yes, Tejada should have told the full truth, and so should have Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Marion Jones. But why are Tejada, Bonds and Clemens facing federal charges for lying, when tobacco company executives are not? 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. That's how unlucky Tejada, Bonds and Clemens are. Or rather, how famous.

"If we are trying to prohibit perjury and punish those who lie under oath, why are we choosing sports figures?" asks ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack, who is also a law professor at Pepperdine University and a former defense attorney.

The public flogging of athletes and the forced extraction of their confessions is becoming a disgusting spectacle. It smacks of clapping people in stocks in the town square. Thomas Boswell, my Washington Post colleague, is exactly right: These investigations have turned into witch hunts, and we've long passed the point where the punishment fits the crime.

Nor are these public confessions particularly persuasive, or useful. There is a rush to praise Rodriguez for being more candid than most athletes in his position. But it's hard to see how his rehearsed admission will dissuade anyone from using performance-enhancing drugs. And how honest was he, really?

He confessed to being "negligent," a word that suggests his steroid usage was a matter of mere accident or inattention. He also confessed to being "naive," which suggests he was actually a victim. The one thing he didn't really confess to was willfully, knowingly, premeditatedly using performance-enhancing drugs. Nor did he specify what substances he took, how he ingested them or who he got them from, which would have been helpful. Rodriguez struck Cossack as "clearly coached by a crisis manager. He basically said, 'Things got in my body but I don't know how.' "

As for Tejada, he's apparently a habitual liar. He started early in his career by lying about his age and the spelling of his name. But are his lies really so damaging that they required federal prosecution?

In an interview with congressional staffers in 2005, Tejada was asked if there had been discussions among other players about steroids.

"No, I never heard," Tejada replied through a Spanish interpreter.

Asked if he knew of any players using steroids, he responded, "No, I didn't know any player."

There it is, Tejada's grand offense.

What we need is a more realistic view of performance-enhancing drugs, who uses them and why. Studies show that the vast majority of users don't take them to compete, but rather to look good. If we want to recruit athletes into the discussion, then let's be candid about our culture of narcissism, and Congress should examine entertainers and singers, too. And if we're really that worried about "the kids," then we better criminalize cigarettes, and Whoppers while we're at it.

If we want athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs to be more concerned with the spillover effect on the young, then we should find a way for them to talk honestly to young athletes on the subject, without fear of reprisal. The threat of federal prosecution, and ritual condemnation, has hindered conversation.

Rather than threatening the ballplayers who participated in baseball's 2003 testing with exposure, why not survey them with the assurance of genuine confidentiality, and an interest in finding out what they really think? They might have some useful suggestions about how to tackle the problem more realistically.

One of the difficulties with discouraging performance enhancement is that laymen and outside critics have very little understanding of athletes' actual motives, and usage. It's hardly a persuasive argument to tell a young aspiring major leaguer, "Don't take that substance, it might hurt you," when he stares at a 100-mph fastball that could maim him. How do athletes balance the cost benefit of what they use? What are their rationalizations? How do these substances really work, and what are their real properties and effects? Anecdotal evidence suggests that often they use them to heal, or to counter suspected use by an opponent. Are there any decent alternatives? Can we develop substitutes that approximate the same effects, but are legal?

Maybe if athletes could be persuaded to talk more openly about performance-enhancing drugs, we'd make some headway against the larger problem. But real honesty is not what we're getting. A-Rod was a lot of things in his tremulous interview, but perfectly frank was not one of them. Tejada's cop of a plea is hardly illuminating, either. All of these legal proceedings inhibit honesty, rather than promote it. That's too bad. We lecture athletes, and lash out at them, without ever getting at the problem. We should try listening to them.

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