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Joshua Green

A useful idiot

Roger Clemens’s downfall has motivated kids to stop using steroids

tim bower for the boston globe

On Monday, Roger Clemens’s second trial for perjury and obstruction of justice got underway in Washington, D.C. This time, Washington barely noticed. A lot has changed since 2005, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held its explosive hearings on steroid abuse in Major League Baseball — hearings that upended the sport, ensnared the seven-time Cy Young winner, and led to his indictment.

But those hearings still cast a pall over the first days of the trial. The Associated Press reported that the court is having trouble assembling a jury because several prospective members don’t believe that Congress had any business investigating drug use in professional sports. That’s a common attitude, and a dismaying one. It stems from a misconception that Major League Baseball actively promoted at the time — that the hearings had no higher purpose than to glorify arrogant, media-hungry lawmakers.

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That’s wrong. What motivated Congress was an alarming trend toward steroid abuse by teenagers, illuminated in a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed the number of teens using steroids had tripled to 500,000 over a decade.

A few months later, it became clear what lay behind the epidemic. Former slugger Jose Canseco published his tell-all memoir, “Juiced,” detailing rampant steroid abuse among major leaguers. Not that that was a particular secret, in baseball or in Washington. The Justice Department’s BALCO investigation into major league steroid abuse was already underway, and President Bush had used his 2004 State of the Union address to demand that the league “get rid of steroids now.” But baseball commissioner Bud Selig made clear that he would not investigate Canseco’s accusations, dismissing them as “sheer nonsense.”

Not everyone agreed. “Kids were getting hurt by this, they were emulating these players,” former Representative Tom Davis, Virginia Republican and then-chairman of the oversight committee, told me this week. “When we talked to Major League Baseball, it was clear they weren’t doing anything about it.”

Congress has two primary functions, to pass laws and to exercise oversight. The notion that its authority doesn’t extend to baseball — an argument Clemens’s lawyers have signaled they’ll use — is just wrong. In 1973, a House committee conducted a year-long investigation of drugs in professional sports that found “alarming” levels of steroid abuse. Concerned that public hearings would glorify steroids in the eyes of teenagers, the committee’s chairman instead met privately with then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who satisfied him that the problem would be addressed.

This time, however, Major League Baseball showed no such willingness, so Davis and California Representative Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, stepped in. “The problem was not merely ‘the integrity of the game,’ ” Waxman wrote in his memoir, “but also the health and well-being of American kids.” Although little remembered today, the first hearing, in February 2005, featured two sets of parents whose teenage sons had committed suicide after abusing steroids.

A 2004 study showed the number of teens using steroids had tripled to 500,000 over a decade.

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But this was instantly overshadowed by the second hearing, which featured several major league stars, including Mark McGwire, whose refusal to deny that he’d used steroids was widely seen as a tacit admission that he had. Because the hearings were broadcast live on ESPN and sports talk radio, the players themselves, not the broader epidemic, dominated the news and thus became the lens through which most Americans viewed the story.

What led Congress to go after baseball, and eventually Clemens, was the league’s refusal to act, even after these hearings — and even after Rafael Palmeiro, who had told Congress he had not used steroids, later turned out to have tested positive for them. Only when Congress moved to pass legislation authorizing the Office of National Drug Control Policy to enact a tough, uniform standard for all professional sports did the league grudgingly relent by appointing former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to conduct an investigation. Mitchell eventually identified 89 players alleged to have used steroids, Clemens most famous among them.

Congress always gets a bad rap — and often deservedly. As the jury problems in the Clemens case make clear, many Americans regard the steroid hearings as just another example of congressional overreach. Waxman lamented several years ago that “the decision to investigate professional baseball was, and continues to be, primarily looked at as an attempt to clean up professional sports [while] the broader motivation of protecting kids has gone virtually unnoticed.”

That’s unfortunate, because subsequent medical data make clear that the steroid hearings had a remarkably positive effect on public health. In January, the highly regarded annual survey of teenage drug use by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that steroid abuse has plummeted across all three categories it measures, eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders: “The annual prevalence of anabolic steroid use has declined by between 50 percent and 60 percent at all three grades from their recent peak levels in the early 2000s.” An earlier survey found “an increase in the proportion of 12th-grade males . . . who see great risk in trying anabolic steroids.”

Today, Davis, like Waxman, feels some frustration over public misperceptions about why they conducted their hearings. “We were trying to change baseball’s policy, not ruin careers,” he says. “You probably have a couple guys who won’t be in the Hall of Fame now. But the public’s health was the whole purpose of the hearings, and we succeeded in what we set out to do. It was one of the last successful examples of bipartisanship in Congress.”

As his latest trial inches along, Clemens himself has become a kind of backhanded testament to that success, an embodiment of the sweeping cultural change that’s taken place in professional baseball, and in society overall, about steroids. Once destined for the Hall of Fame, Clemens has been disgraced. No one admires or seeks to emulate him. Instead, he’s become an unforgettable cautionary tale. On an issue that most Americans still view through the lives of a few humiliated stars, he may be a more effective deterrent than any statistic or study.

Joshua Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.
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