AP Images/Noah Berger
When it comes to evaluating the United States v. Barry Lamar Bonds—and the federal war on performance-enhancing drugs in sports that spawned it—Victor Conte is easy to dismiss. After all, he was the pied piper of BALCO, the man behind the curtain of the biggest doping scandal in American athletic history. Even following a prison sentence, Conte remains outspoken, a little chastened and a lot defiant, a cheerful self-promoter unafraid to tweak and revel in his own dubious public image.
And yet: with the verdict now delivered in Bonds' long-delayed perjury trial—guilty on a single count of obstruction of justice; in essence, the former San Francisco Giants slugger was evasive before a grand jury, but didn't necessarily lie about never knowingly taking steroids—it's Conte who's asking the most pertinent question.
A larger, more serious question.
A question that can't be brushed off as casually as the individual posing it.
"I made mistakes," Conte said in an interview with The Atlantic this week. "I did bad things. I deserved to be punished. And I was. But at what point do you realize there are better uses of federal taxpayer dollars? Is it worth it? At the end of the day, what did they really get?"
A Bonds trial believed to cost $6 million. A sprawling, civil liberties-trampling investigation that began with questionable dumpster-diving by a small potatoes ex-jock turned tax investigator, morphed into a big-name athlete trophy safari, gave an undercover narcotics agent a weightlifting-induced stroke, ran up a reported $50-plus million price tag, and has no end in sight. Almost a decade of increasingly scarce federal legal resources that otherwise could be put toward drug and immigration cases, instead going to prove and re-prove an obvious, numbing point: Why yes, Virginia, elite athletes juice. (Next on Action News at 11: major corporations exploit the same tax loopholes their own lobbyists write!) Oh, to top things off, Conte now has a slobbery, sweet yellow lab named Balco. No joke.
Was it worth it?
At the end of the day, what did we—the cash-strapped, debt-choked citizens footing the bill—really get?
Do we really want to know?
Look, non-medical steroid use is a crime. So is distribution. In conventional drug cases, the latter typically is more serious than the former, both by statute and in practice. Law enforcement flips users to get to small-time dealers, and small-time dealers to get to bigger suppliers. Little fish lead to whales.
BALCO, by contrast, reversed the order. To wit: steroid supplier Angel "Memo" Heredia avoided punishment by testifying as a star witnesses against track coach Trevor Graham, who allegedly received drugs from Heredia and gave them to athletes such as one-time Olympic golden girl Marion Jones.
Jones ultimately was sentenced to six months in prison. Graham was placed under house arrest for one year. Neither individual was punished for actually using or distributing steroids; they were rapped, respectively, for Jones lying about her use and Graham being untruthful about his relationship with Heredia.
As for Heredia? The guy who was, you know, peddling drugs? He got nothing. Bupkus. To put things another way: suppose the DEA and federal prosecutors had the biggest cocaine importer in the state of California dead to rights. And suppose that instead of locking him or her up, they instead cut a deal to build stronger perjury cases against ... Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen.
Does that make sense?
Weighed against the investigative and prosecutorial manpower expended, the punishments meted out in the BALCO saga seem trivial. Conte: four months of house arrest, four months in a minimum-security facility. Former Bonds trainer Greg Anderson: three months in prison. Steroid chemist Patrick Arnold: three months in prison, three months of house arrest. Cyclist Tammy Thomas: six months of house arrest. That's a lot of ankle bracelets (and a preview for what Bonds can expect should not win his upcoming appeal). The list goes on. BALCO executive James Valente and affiliated track coach Remi Korchemny: one year of probation, each. Defense lawyer Troy Ellerman: 16 months in a federal prison for leaking the names of the athletes involved in the investigation, the longest and most severe sentence in the entire case.
Ellerman, it should be noted, is a former rodeo rider. No one has accused him—or his horses—of doping.
"When I went to prison camp, [television reporter] Martin Brashir reported that the [government] had spent $12.7 million investigating and prosecuting me," Conte says. "In prison, guys were smoking weed on the track. Playing soccer and tennis and basketball tournaments. Guys didn't even want to go home. And it's [likely] Barry Bonds is not going to jail. So what's this all about?"
Was the BALCO investigation about justice? Doing the right thing no matter the cost? Hard to say. It might about one man's Ahab-esque obsession. It might be about cheat-to-win extending beyond the field of play and into the courthouse. Three former colleagues reportedly claim lead federal investigator Jeff Novitzky pursued a personal vendetta against Bonds. Conte claims that a memo written by Novitzky following a 2003 raid on BALCO's headquarters "contains lies." (Novitzky reportedly does not use a tape recorder when conducting interviews, which is otherwise standard practice among feds). A federal judge ruled that Novitzky-led searches of labs performing confidential drug testing for Major League Baseball displayed "a callous disregard for constitutional rights" and violated the Fourth Amendment.
The Bill of Rights versus swollen athletes hitting home runs and running extra fast. Which is more important?
As for the matter of perjury: Lying to or being evasive with federal agents and grand juries is not to be taken lightly. That said, it isn't always an existential threat to the rule of law. Context counts. As a former federal prosecutor recently told Sports Illustrated: "There probably wasn't a case I worked on where someone I put before the grand jury wasn't entirely truthful. But [we] decided our resources were better spent elsewhere."
The government spent a lot of money proving that Thomas and Jones fibbed about the embarrassing details of their PED use. It spent a lot more trying to prove the same thing about Bonds. To what end? Is society best served by using the full-on power of the federal government to investigate and disrupt what amounts to lying about tiny-scale pharmaceutical drug abuse in order to cheat at sports? Protect-the-children steroid hysteria aside, National Institute on Drug Abuse figures show that despite rampant doping among role model professional athletes, only two percent of high school students have used steroids. Meanwhile, 6.6 percent have abused prescription cough medicine. Would the government be better off stepping up its campaign against athletes using "purple drank"? Or is the competitive integrity of highly paid entertainers a more pressing national priority?
If so, what's next: A probe of Natalie Portman for reportedly covering up the extensive use of a pro ballerina body double in Black Swan?
Speaking of sports cheating: When U.S. attorney Kevin Ryan—then the lead federal prosecutor on the BALCO case—resigned in 2007, he told USA Today, "There's an honor system in sports, and people in sports have to abide by this honor system. The parameters are in place now. The public is now expecting every sport to regulate itself ... We've done our job. We should be proud." Um, no. Athletes dope. They've been doping since the ancient Greek Olympics. They're still doping. If Manny Ramirez's recent retirement from baseball—on the heels of a failed drug test—proves anything, it's that the notably savant-like slugger really does live in a state of child-like obliviousness. Because to hear Conte tell it—and remember, he's an expert—current drug-screening programs in both Olympic and professional sports only catch the stupid and the careless. No matter how often sports officials beat their chests otherwise. Loopholes are commonplace. Examples abound. Major League Baseball tests, at most, about third of its players during the offseason —which only happens to be prime time for juicing. Olympic sports conduct random, out-of-competition testing, anytime and anywhere. But athletes can miss two tests without consequence.
As for the NFL, where the players keep getting bigger and stronger yet seem more likely to test positive for brain trauma than PED use? According to a mostly-ignored Wall Street Journal report, athletes are given up to a day and a half of advance notice before drug tests.
"That's a complete joke," Conte says. "Listen, if you want to catch fish, you have to do it when they're biting. Test more in the offseason. But no one's doing it. Do they really want to go there?
"The [United Kingdom] anti-doping [agency] asked me to write a detailed protocol. I laid it all out there in great detail, gave it to the entire world. You know what happened? For the most part, the drug testers didn't do anything. And the athletes started following the protocols! The whole thing is almost comical."
Almost. But not quite. Not after millions spent, time invested, lives turned upside down. Not with Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens still on the docket. Not when the final moral of the BALCO saga and the United States v. Barry Lamar Bonds seems to be that you really shouldn't lie when the feds inquire about sticking needles in your butt—and all the while, no one bothers to ask why the feds should care in the first place.
"The government has had a huge team of people working on this for seven-plus years," Conte says. "If they get to the end of the rainbow and the outcome is Barry Bonds [under house arrest] hanging out at his mansion, then who is going to hold them accountable?"
Regardless of the messenger, that's another good question.
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