Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lesson #1 From the Ongoing Steroids Saga: Don't Lie to the Feds

Elvis Presley once sang, "You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes." The federal government's motto in many instances--ranging from the Martha Stewart case to the ongoing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) saga--seems to be, "You can do anything but don't lie to federal agents." As far as I know, no elite athlete has yet gone to jail for using PEDs, which are illegal without a doctor's prescription--but Marion Jones is about to go to jail for lying about her PED use and Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada and others--including Roger Clemens if he is not telling the truth--may eventually be incarcerated for lying as well. At least as far back as President Nixon's administration we have heard the cliche "It's not the crime that gets you in trouble; it's the cover up" and we are certainly seeing plenty of examples of that now. Tejada must have been the most surprised person in America when his name jumped to center stage during Tuesday's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding the Mitchell Report. Representatives Henry Waxman and Tom Davis asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Tejada lied when he was questioned in 2005 during the Rafael Palmeiro perjury investigation. Of course, this little drama within the wider scandal began when Palmeiro wagged his finger toward committee members and swore that he had never used steroids. After Palmeiro flunked a drug test, he fingered Tejada as the source of what he took, which Palmeiro still maintains he did not know to be steroids. Tejada denies using steroids, but the Mitchell Report produced two checks that Tejada wrote to his then-teammate Adam Piatt, who told Mitchell's investigators that he obtained steroids and human growth hormone for Tejada.

After the Mitchell Report was issued, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig almost broke his arm patting himself on the back for how well he has handled the PED issue. John Fahey, the President of the World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA), is not nearly as impressed with the measures--or lack thereof--that Selig is taking: "Professional baseball's response to Senator Mitchell's report is baffling. To suggest that it might continue to keep its anti-doping testing program in demeaning to Senator Mitchell and the congressional committees who view doping as a serious threat to public health." That is really the crux of the matter. I realize that some fans say "Who cares?" and question why Congress is getting involved in this situation but this is absolutely a serious public health issue. Considering that MLB has obviously handled this matter completely ineptly for the better part of two decades, it is actually overdue that Congress steps in and tries to assert some control here. This is not simply a matter of letting Barry Bonds do whatever he wants to do with his body because he will face the consequences: all of society will pay a steep price if PED usage spreads from a few thousand pro athletes to millions of young, amateur athletes, a process that has already begun because the cheaters have made it difficult to perform at an elite level without joining their ranks.

In addition to the public health concerns, there is also the issue that sports should be conducted on a fair, level playing field (pardon the pun) without certain athletes gaining an advantage through criminal actions. Representative Betty McCollum eloquently addressed this aspect of the scandal: "Fixed games played by drug users illegitimately altered the outcome of the games. It's my opinion we're here in the middle of a criminal conspiracy that defrauded millions of baseball fans of billions of dollars." Selig and his partner in crime Donald Fehr, the head of the MLB Players Association, are very proud of how much MLB's revenues have soared under their watch--but, as Rep. McCollum stated, those funds were raised under false pretenses. Fraud and drug trafficking are two of the crimes covered under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. I'm no lawyer but if it can be proven that Selig and/or Fehr either actively knew about rampant PED use in MLB or were grossly negligent in trying to prevent such criminal activities because those activities were generating revenue for MLB then why can't the government prosecute Selig, Fehr and anyone else involved in what McCollum rightly called a "criminal conspiracy"? I realize that such a prosecution is unlikely to ever happen but think about the powerful message it would send.

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