George Bush vs. Barry Bonds

The government's effective smear campaign against baseball's best player


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."

The stunt made international headlines, triggering outrage at Bonds and other athletes in sports pages and on talk shows around the country. Novitzky's heavy-breathing affidavits were released and chewed over.

Within six weeks (and likely sooner), federal officials deployed their favorite tactic for squeezing testimony out of unwilling, high-profile witnesses—they convened a grand jury. As the Cato Institute's Timothy Lynch, Stephen Johnson and Thomas Dillard showed in a 2003 paper (PDF), grand juries have been transformed from safeguards against overzealous prosecutors, into "inquisitorial bulldozers that run roughshod over the constitutional rights of citizens."

Dozens of star athletes, including Bonds, were brought in to testify. In February 2004, three weeks after Bush's steroid-injected State of the Union address, Attorney General John Ashcroft himself announced the indictments of four dealers—Conte, Bonds' friend Anderson, and two others—on 42 counts of conspiracy, money laundering, and distribution of anabolic steroids. No athletes were named.

"Nothing does more to diminish our potential—both as individuals and as a nation—than illegal drug abuse," the hyperbolic Attorney General said. "The tragedy of so-called performance-enhancing drugs is that they foster the lie that excellence can be bought rather than earned and that physical potential is an asset to be exploited rather than a gift to be nurtured. Illegal steroid use calls into question not only the integrity of the athletes who use them, but the integrity of the sports they play. These drugs are bad for sports, bad for the players and bad for the young people who look to athletes as role models."

If the athletes thought their participation in the process had ended with their grand jury testimony (which by law is supposed to remain secret), then they gravely misjudged the up-front intentions of Ashcroft and Bush. Sure, the drugs are illegal—without a prescription or "adequate directions regarding use," that is—but more importantly to this administration they "send the wrong message" to the children. And no nickel-and-dime prosecution of four steroid distributors (including one guy, Greg Anderson, of whom Conte says "the amount of performance-enhancing drugs the feds found at [his] house was minuscule") will produce anything like Bush's desired effect of "send[ing] the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now."

That's where the grand jury leaks come in. The San Francisco Chronicle, which has been dominating coverage of the BALCO investigation, has done so based on leak after leak from the supposedly sealed grand jury proceedings. Most of the loose lips have concerned names of individual star athletes; none (at least to my knowledge) have been accompanied by any hint from the Chronicle about which side was providing the information, and why.

"There have been leaks about track star Marion Jones and sprinter Tim Montgomery," Newsday reported Sunday. "There have been leaks upon leaks about Bonds and other baseball stars. Leaks about minor-leaguers. Leaks about football players. Leaks about hammer throwers. In August, several leaks ago, defense lawyers counted 29 different news accounts based on confidential information about the investigation."

By far the two biggest player-related leaks came last week, when the Chronicle printed the blockbuster news that 2000 American League MVP Jason Giambi, who has long publicly denied using steroids, actually testified to the contrary, admitting that he knowingly took the stuff from 2001-2003. Before this sport-shaking revelation could even be digested, the Chron released some of the testimony from none other than Barry Bonds.

And what did it show? That "Bonds testified that he had received and used clear and cream substances from his personal strength trainer, Greg Anderson, during the 2003 baseball season but was told they were the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm for arthritis." The "clear" and "cream" resembled specific BALCO-supplied steroids, investigators think; Bonds denied ever knowingly using banned substances.

That's it. No charge of illegal possession or use or conspiracy, no hint (so far) of perjury, no indication that he ever broke any Major League Baseball rules. Still, it was enough for the nation's editorial boards to wag their disapproving fingers, and for Congress to resume its headline-chasing song-and-dance.

The leaks could not possibly have come at a more fortuitous time for baseball owners and their enablers in government. The Thursday and Friday bombshells came just in time for this week's annual meetings of Major League Baseball general managers, and of the executive board of the Player's Union, both of which promised to be thick with reporters. What extraordinary luck!

It also came just in time for programmers of weekend TV chat shows to locate some representative outrage from Capitol Hill. They didn't have to look hard.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), appearing on "Fox News Sunday," called baseball's current steroid policy a "joke," threatened to introduce drug-testing legislation as early as January, and reported that President Bush was thrilled by the prospect. "There's not a doubt in my mind. He'd love to," McCain said. "The president is very concerned." Democratic Sen. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) concurred, as did baseball's contemptible commissioner, Bud Selig.

"If we cannot resolve this issue privately, I gladly will accept whatever help is offered by Sen. McCain to achieve our ultimate goal," Selig said in a statement. "While I would prefer to resolve this problem directly with the Players Association and jointly implement a much stronger drug-testing policy in Major League Baseball, one modeled after our program in the minor leagues, I understand the need for swift and resolute action."

Selig, it might be recalled, has previously lied to Congress about baseball's supposed financial woes, and has spent his term helping owners soak taxpayers for more than $5 billion in baseball welfare.

Selig's playing of the McCain card seems to have worked wonders—the New York Times reported yesterday that Major League Baseball and the Player's Union have reached a tentative new agreement ripping up the 2002 drug policy, and replacing it with a regime that includes more testing (including in the off-season) and stiffer penalties.

So if the players and owners agree on something the fans seem to want, what's not to like?

Plenty. First, direct threat of an imminent government crackdown—a McCain specialty—is hardly the ideal condition for private employers and employees to hash out optimal labor agreements. If my boss were to demand suddenly that I submit to urine-testing, I wouldn't want the Senator from Arizona promising to crack skulls if I didn't agree. And unless baseball has some post-Moe Berg National Security component I'm unaware of, I don't see why Congress should care.

Second, the federal justice system should be about apprehending serious criminals, not "sending messages" to schoolchildren by abusing the grand jury process to compile and illegally leak publicly damaging information about non-criminals.

Thirdly, in an era when testosterone and other hormones are being used safely to treat various illnesses, isn't it time to ask why, exactly, they can't be used to help men who use their bodies for a living recover from the daily strain as they reach retirement age?

And finally, think back to poor Barry Bonds, if you can call a jerk who makes $19 million a year "poor." What if he told the truth under oath, and never knowingly took illegal or banned substances?

If that's the case, then the man who had the season to end all seasons was rewarded for it by A) being made the prime target of a multi-agency federal investigation backed directly by the president and attorney general; B) having his reputation (and endorsements-earning potential) deliberately shredded; and C) being forced to fend off continuous hostile cross-examination, even while compiling the best four-year run in baseball history.

There is such a thing as the presumption of innocence, no matter what you read in the sports pages. As it stands, Barry Bonds has not even been formally accused of violating a single baseball rule, let alone federal law.

President Bush has indeed "sent a message" to the kids of America: We can make you look guilty, even when you've never been charged. It's a rough lesson, but they might as well start getting used it.