The United States government has sent the impressionable Youth of America an unmistakable signal: Do not, under any circumstances, break any sporting records after adding 18 pounds of muscle at age 36.
If you do, Uncle Sam will use the awesome powers at his disposal—grand jury inquisitions, illegal leaks, even the State of the Union address—to humiliate you in public and pressure your union to accept year-round random urine testing, even if you will never be charged with breaking a single law.
In 2001, the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds, one of the five best players ever to wear a baseball uniform (he has won an unprecedented seven Most Valuable Player awards, including the National League's last four), broke Mark McGwire's single-season home run record, with 73, far surpassing his own previous high of 49. Unluckily for him, he did so in a media market inhabited by an ex-jock IRS agent who didn't appreciate Bonds' famously surly attitude.
"That Bonds. He's a great athlete," Internal Revenue Service criminal investigator Jeff Novitzky told California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agent Iran White three or four years ago, according to White's account, as reported in a remarkable May 2004 Playboy article. "You think he's on steroids?" When White reckoned that Bonds was, Novitzky reportedly answered: "He's such an asshole to the press... I'd sure like to prove it."
Remember, kids: Don't be an asshole to the media!
For two years, Novitzky, a former college basketball player, lobbied various state and federal agencies—"always with Bonds as the lure," according to Playboy—and in February 2003, a sting operation was set in motion against the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which provided blood analysis, nutritional supplements, weight training facilities, and various anabolic steroids to an impressive roster of athletes, including (according to BALCO founder and former Tower of Power bassist Victor Conte) former NFL star Bill Romanowski, Olympic Gold Medalist Marion Jones (who has strenuously denied the charge), and Barry Bonds' personal trainer and lifelong friend, Greg Anderson.
Steroids became a federal issue after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his 1988 Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter dash. Congress, which has a long and tawdry record of responding to the day's headlines by adding ever more offenses to the bulging federal criminal code, passed the Anabolic Steroids Control Act in 1990, classifying steroids as "Schedule III" drugs, same as amphetamines and morphine.
Then as now, the rationale was that high-school athletes need to be disincentivized from using unprescribed medical substances with unknown and/or possibly dangerous side effects, such as shrinking testicles, blunted growth, testosterone-fueled "'Roid Rage," and (in women) the development of masculine characteristics. The main benefit steroids have given athletes over the last several decades is the ability to recover more quickly from heavy physical workouts.
"Between February 1991 and February 1995," according to EliteFitness.com, "the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) initiated 355 anabolic steroid investigations resulting in over 400 arrests and over 200 convictions."
In other words, despite Congressional huffing and puffing, the unprescribed use of drugs that are playing an increasingly important role in the treatment of breast cancer and HIV had been very low on the feds' things-to-enforce list.
Until 2001, when Bonds broke the home-run record...and George W. Bush took over the White House. Bush, a former minority owner of the Texas Rangers, has a classic baseball owner's mentality when it comes to employee drug use: Players should be granted the same privacy as racehorses, in order to Protect Our Kids.
"To help children make right choices, they need good examples," President Bush warned, remarkably, in his 2004 State of the Union Address. "Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example. The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message—that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now."
The use of the ultimate Bully Pulpit should come as no surprise: By then, IRS agent Novitzky had long established that the BALCO case would be more about the pressure of negative publicity than the assembling of a viable criminal case.
Novitzky's sting operation broke down after four months when undercover investigator Iran White suffered a stroke. The IRS further bungled things by digging through BALCO's trash, then tossing the discards into the dumpster of another business, which promptly informed BALCO. Repeated requests for wiretaps were denied for insufficient cause. Finally in September 2003, after a tip from a rival sports trainer, two dozen IRS agents and local cops stormed the laboratory, in full view of tipped-off television cameras.
"Many agents—everyone, in fact, who doesn't work for the IRS—are angered by the publicity," Playboy recounted. "The search of BALCO, which was supposed to remain secret for countless investigative reasons, now resembles an episode of Cops. Members of other law enforcement groups are furious at the publicity stunt. The search was designed as a pressure tactic, not as the end of the investigation; there are no plans to arrest Conte, who walks free."