What does Roger Clemens’ acquittal, handed down Monday, mean for the integrity of sports?
Just asking that question presents problems. It can be read as an assumption the court got it wrong. So let me restate it.
What does the government’s inability to obtain convictions in either the Clemens case or the case against Barry Bonds (other than on one count of obstruction of justice, which is under appeal), and the recent decision not to charge cyclist Lance Armstrong mean for the integrity of sports?
Keep in mind that George W. Bush, when he was president, devoted part of a State of the Union address to performance-enhancing drugs. Some athletes, he said, are sending the message “that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character.” High school athletes were supposedly using banned substances because they were seeing professionals perform amazing, age-defying feats.
Will young athletes now assume they can get away with it? Or will they believe Clemens was innocent and use that as an argument for relying only on good old-fashioned hard work and training?
My guess is they will assume Clemens got away with something.
Other high profile athletes — Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, to name two — have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. That means prosecutors were not simply off chasing phantoms. An entire era of baseball history is likely to be defined by suspected steroid use, with the records set during those years forever under suspicion.
Coming up with convictions, though, has been harder than getting that elusive final out in the World Series.
Have prosecutors simply blown it? Or is it too hard to actually prove that someone used banned substances, unless her name is Marion Jones?
In Clemens’ case, the defense was able to cast doubt on the prosecution’s main witness, Clemens’ old strength coach, Brian McNamee. He was the only one who would have had first-hand knowledge of Clemens’ steroid use, and he had changed his story over the years. That was enough to cast a reasonable doubt.
For the jury, that is. The court of public opinion is something else.
Remember, the eight men who supposedly rigged the 1918 World Series as members of the Chicago White Sox were acquitted in court. They were, however, banish from the sport for life by the commissioner of baseball.
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball,” wrote the commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has filed a formal accusation against Armstrong that could strip him of his Tour de France victories.
As for Clemens, he still has to face the judgment of Hall of Fame voters. His pitching statistics alone would make him a shoe-in. Will doubts about performance enhancement negate those?
And will the smoke around all the steroid talk in big-time sports send the right message to young athletes, even if prosecutors have been able to uncover very little fire?
Somehow, I doubt it.