Truth and Consequences

Yes, Roger Clemens is a jerk. But Congress shouldn’t make a federal case over whether he lied about using steroids.
Pitching His Case: Will the Rocket end up in the Hall of Fame—or the Hall of Shame?
Illustration by Philip Burke

The holy warriors of the anti-doping crusade have achieved the near-impossible: They have made me feel sorry for Roger Clemens. When George Mitchell’s report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, requested by commissioner Bud Selig, made Clemens its poster boy, the reputation of one of the best pitchers the game has witnessed was instantly destroyed. The allegations were based almost entirely on the testimony of Clemens’s former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, who was threatened with prosecution if he lied to Mitchell’s investigators. That’s what the crusaders were waiting for, a big name, someone less odious than, say, Barry Bonds. We may learn the truth from the upcoming FBI investigation into whether Clemens committed perjury, or the conflict between Clemens and his accusers may remain unresolved, but either way, the damage is done. “Mitchell has thrown a skunk in the jury box,” Rusty Hardin, Clemens’s Houston-based attorney, told me. “Whatever happens now, we’ll never be able to remove the smell.”

A shadow of suspicion has trailed Clemens since October 2006, when the Los Angeles Times reported that an affidavit for a search warrant, sworn to by a federal investigator, fingered McNamee, Clemens, and several other players in a performance-enhancer drug case. Clemens steadfastly denied using performance enhancers (and, indeed, fourteen months later, the Times ran a correction saying that he had not been named in the affidavit after all). He repeated those denials after the Mitchell report appeared in December, first in an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, in which he admitted to taking injections of vitamin B12 and the painkiller lidocaine but angrily rejected McNamee’s contentions that he’d received steroids and human growth hormone ( HGH), then in a press conference so packed with self-righteous indignation that he stormed off the stage when the questions got too sticky.

To rebut allegations that Clemens’s career rebounded about the time he supposedly first started using performance enhancers, his agent, Randy Hendricks, released an 18,000-word report, complete with statistics, maintaining that his remarkable longevity (Clemens is 45) was due to his ability to adjust his pitching style. To compensate for a decrease in the velocity of his fastball, which had been his trademark since he broke in with the Boston Red Sox, in 1983, Clemens, the report said, utilized a split-finger fastball. Indeed, he won the fourth of his seven Cy Young awards in 1997, at age 35, a year after the Red Sox decided he was washed-up and a year before McNamee claims that Clemens started using steroids.

On February 13, Clemens went to Capitol Hill to repeat his denials, this time under oath. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had all but commanded his appearance, because he had dared to challenge the Mitchell report. “How did we reach the stage where a guy is criticized for publicly denying guilt?” Hardin asks. Clemens hasn’t been charged with a crime, but the court of public opinion has already rendered its guilty verdict.

It’s almost as though the holy warriors were waiting for a star of Clemens’s magnitude to make it official that performance enhancers are our newest national hysteria, nudging aside old standbys like bird flu, sharks, and red hordes. This has gone beyond silly. Who among us hasn’t used performance enhancers, preferably with ice and an olive? Steroids, synthetic substances similar to testosterone, can be as benign as those that are commonly prescribed for allergies and as harmful as those that have sent many retired athletes into physical decline; as with any medication, the effect depends on the dose and frequency of use. Anabolic steroids, the type that bulk up muscles, are used to treat certain kinds of anemia and offset the loss of testosterone caused by aging. I’ve taken them and regularly use a steroid nasal spray. My dog Allie takes steroid shots for her hot spots. Another type of steroid, called a corticosteroid, is used to reduce swelling. The real question ought to focus on intent: If an athlete uses steroids to change his body, as Barry Bonds apparently did, the public has every reason to be outraged. If an athlete uses them to combat aging, so what?

All steroids enhance performance and, if misused, can cause trouble. There have been a few cases where the premature death of an athlete was possibly the result of steroid use, most notably those involving Lyle Alzado, a defensive end for the Denver Broncos, who believed that steroids were the cause of his fatal brain lymphoma, and Houston Astros and San Diego Padres slugger Ken Caminiti, a user of cocaine and steroids who died of a heart attack at 41.

For the most part, however, the only thing certifiably bad about steroids is that they may improve athletic performance. Somehow we’ve decided that the only hardworking professionals who shouldn’t be permitted to enhance their performances are athletes. Amphetamines were staples in professional training rooms in the sixties and seventies—Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four, published in 1970, is full of talk about popping “greenies”—and are still widely used. “Amphetamines are the real performance-enhancing drugs that people should always have been worried about,” Allan Lans, the New York Mets’ team psychiatrist from 1987 to 2003, told the New York Times recently. The mind-set of the elite athlete is, do anything it takes to get an advantage. Athletes training for the Beijing Olympics have asked the physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee if they should acclimate themselves to the city’s dreadful pollution by running behind buses and breathing the exhaust. In his 60 Minutes interview Clemens cheerfully admitted that until the painkiller Vioxx was taken off the market, he gobbled it “like it was Skittles.”

Clemens is one of the game’s more unlovable athletes, which may explain why nobody will give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s not as reviled as Bonds, though the differences are more a matter of style than substance. Whereas Bonds is arrogant, sullen, and menacingly taciturn, a volcano of resentment waiting to erupt, Clemens is profane, inarticulate, and in-your-face aggressive.

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