'Roid Rage

What the professional sports world doesn't get about Washington

Roger Clemens has stared down many terrifying foes, but none like the two dozen congressmen sitting across from him at yesterday’s House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform hearing on whether he used steroids. Not that he realized this at first. Clemens is famously proud and intense and possessed of an outsized ego to match the outsized achievements that had, until the release of the Mitchell Report in December, made him a lock for the Hall of Fame. But he was as helplessly inept in the committee room as Newt Gingrich would be in the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium.

One after another, a parade of anonymous backbenchers lit into Clemens without remorse, hurling surreal insinuations about his “strained glutes” and “the palpable mass on his buttocks” with the same mix of high-flown piety and stentorian disapproval they ordinarily deploy against crooked lobbyists or felonious Halliburton executives.

You could tell from the miserable look on Clemens’s face and the stammering way in which he addressed each of his inquisitors as “Mr. Congressman” that he had no idea who these strange beings were or why they were doing this to him. Pro athletes like Clemens are deities in their own world and rarely challenged. When they are, it tends to happen gently and with their consent, as in a one-on-one television interview, or else privately, as in a disciplinary hearing before a league commissioner, with phalanxes of lawyers and union reps there to defend them. Never are they as nakedly vulnerable as when testifying before Congress—yet none ever seems to grasp this, which is what makes these hearings so bizarre and riveting.

How disorienting it must have been for Clemens, then, to face the hilariously red-faced Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who has the bristling haircut of a 10-year-old boy, carrying on about whether the star witness had “carried Band-Aids for his butt if he bled” through his “designer pants” after receiving a shot of something powerful in his hind quarters. The whole Tom Davis litany was delivered as Tom Davis, seven-term congressman, sat beneath a gilded, gold-framed oil painting of … Tom Davis.

Professional sports and official Washington have much in common. Neither is a stranger to steroidally overdeveloped egos or grand displays of power. But as so often happens when the two worlds collide, yesterday’s hearing was a massacre—and, as usual, professional sports didn’t see it coming. It looked to me as though Clemens and the many sports media types in attendance were genuinely taken aback by the primal, dog-in-heat urgency with which these grandstanding nobodies tore apart a sports legend. The political reporters, however, were not the slightest bit fazed.

This highlights a crucial disparity that I think the sports world has never truly appreciated, and that helps to explain the disastrous string of recent appearances by major sports figures in Washington: sports and politics both thrive on ego, money, and power. But only in Washington is the ritual humiliation that Clemens experienced a deeply ingrained and important part of the culture.

At the same time that Clemens was being grilled by the oversight committee, the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, was on the other side of the Hill acquainting himself with a mildly less public form of the same ordeal. It is Goodell’s bad fortune to have ignored a series of absurd letters sent to him by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) some months ago inquiring into a matter in which Specter had no possible professional reason to care about besides for his own aggrandizement: the New England Patriots’ “Spygate Scandal.” As everyone in Washington—and evidently no one at NFL headquarters— knows, self-aggrandizement is Arlen Specter’s chief business in the Senate, and ritual humiliation his favored method of achieving it.

I don’t know if Specter has a gold-framed portrait of himself hanging in a committee room somewhere (though I’ll bet he does), but he’s famous for screaming at his staff and publicly belittling them whenever the mood strikes. The impulse doesn’t limit itself to the help, who are not, in the grand scheme of things, all that important or recognizable, and who are paid to take it. Bagging a lion like Goodell, on the other hand, is a far greater prize, and Specter had expertly stalked his prey and set him up for the kill.

According to media reports, Specter wanted to know why Goodell had destroyed videotaped evidence of the Patriots allegedly cheating. You can imagine what Goodell, or whichever underling opens his mail, must have thought to himself upon receiving these missives: Isn’t that guy busy trying to end a war or something? On its merits, the notion that a senior senator would care about a minor sports scandal in which no money changed hands and no laws were broken is laughable, and was obviously treated as such by the NFL.

Wrong play. What Goodell and Clemens and Bud Selig and all the rest of the sports luminaries who have come before Congress don’t understand is that politicians view them in a way no one else does: as easy targets. To politicians, sports is the rare subject that holds practically no political risk, while the robust egos of celebrity athletes can be counted on to supply the public spectacle that official Washington craves. Sports is easy. It is bipartisan: every red-blooded American roots for the hometown team. It lets elitist multimillionaires signal their earthy, blue-collar solidarity with regular folk. It is a way to stoke passionate, populist feeling without ever needing to worry about angering the other side, because when you rise to defend the home team, there is no other side. Only a total fool can flub it, as Mitt Romney demonstrated by fortifying a healthy reputation for phoniness with his claim that he was thrilled when the Boston Red Sox broke “an 87-year” World Series drought in 2004, when every sentient Bay Stater knew it had been 86 years.

Specter’s no fool when it comes to sports. He has long made a point of advertising his love for the hometown Eagles, who, some junior staffer might have whispered to him, lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl several years ago. The decision to humiliate Goodell, who (unlike the New York Giants) had only mildly humiliated the Patriots, was what the sports and political worlds alike would recognize as “a slam dunk.”

But why, you might ask, do congressmen feel compelled to subject athletes to such humiliation? Because it is the law of the jungle. Like silverback gorillas, senators and congressmen as well as cabinet secretaries and chiefs of staff all compete for primacy by attacking the alpha males—individually when they’re strong enough (Specter), in packs when they’re not (the oversight committee). Hall-of-Fame pitchers aren’t the only ones hunted. Even the most senior statesmen are not immune.

Specter himself is an edifying example. Shortly after George Bush’s reelection, he was forced to endure the most public humiliation I can ever recall a political party inflicting on one of its own members. Specter had finally achieved the seniority to expect the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, a prize even greater than an oil painting. Yet, coursing with partisan fervor from their victory, Karl Rove and some Republican silverbacks decided to challenge the old bull in the Darwinian way of Washington: by declaring that Specter—a moderate in his politics if not in his temperament—was insufficiently conservative to deserve the gavel. When they threatened to hand it to someone else, Specter did what any senator who senses his chairmanship slipping away would: he groveled. For weeks on end, Specter abased himself before any and every conservative, calling in chits, pleading openly, and offering embarrassing testimonials to the staunchness of his conservatism.

He survived because that is how the Washington game is played. It’s as brutal in its way as any professional sport, and it’s the reason, I’ve always suspected, for the theatrical courtesies and archaic manners that otherwise obtain. You begin to understand why congressmen slaver at the sight of a perceived weakling seated in the witness chair. Of course, pro athletes never think of themselves that way, which is why they make such easy prey. Clemens spent Monday on the Hill, signing autographs and glad-handing many of those same congressmen. When he looked across the hearing table yesterday, I’ll bet he saw a bunch of out-of-shape old men in bad suits. He didn’t realize, because athletes and commissioners never do, that he’d just stepped onto the playing field.