I don’t know why the government is prosecuting Barry Bonds. It seems like a waste of limited resources. Yes, I believe that the former big-league slugger took steroids. I also think it is likely he lied to a grand jury and to federal agents. But in the larger scheme of things, does this really matter? Our government lies all the time, routinely engaging in trickery and deception in the course of its investigations. Our courts condone these lies because strategic uses of deception serve legitimate law-enforcement interests; why does the government get to lie while we the people are held to a higher standard?
This week’s issue of The New Yorker features a piece on the Bonds trial: "King of Walks: Barry Bonds and the doping scandal," March 28, 2011.Trial begins this week. Bonds is charged with lying to a federal grand jury investigating whether he used performance-enhancing steroids. Read the New Yorker essay and ask yourself who looks like the bigger creep: Barry Bonds, or the federal prosecutor, Jeff Novitzsky, who apparently gloats over being called the "Eliot Ness of steroids"? Novitsky comes across as the bitter wannabe, the small-time collegiate athlete – he played basketball in junior college -- who won’t rest until all the world is compressed into the same two-dimensional mold of mediocrity his career typified.
We are a drug-saturated society. I start the day with a lift provided by caffeine. At social events, I take the edge of my anxiety with Scotch or gin, that’s either Dewars or Tanquery, thank you. These are my drugs of choice. I know plenty of people who pump themselves full of nicotine. Many lives are lost or ruined or lost as a result of the misuse of alcohol and nicotine. We all find our way through the day as best we can.
When athletes turn to the use of performance enhancing drugs, we call it a crime. Yet, as Jose Canseco wrote in 2005 : "Steroids are the future. By the time my eight-year-old daughter ... has graduated from high school, a majority of all professional athletes – in all sports – will be taking steroids. And believe it or not, that’s good news."
I don’t know whether I agree with Canseco about the emergence of steroids as a good thing. I simply accept the inevitable: we demand entertainment by our twentieth century gladiators. When a baseball player swings for the fences, or a football player comes barreling down the field, ball in hand, I care far less for the purity of the athlete’s blood stream than I do for the spectacle of it all. The government’s bearing down on the thoroughbreds we root for is unseemly. Do we really care if Lance Armstrong used steroids? And yet a federal grand jury is now rumored to be trawling through all the government can find about the cyclist.
We need heroes. Sports figures serve that need. The roar of a crowd at an athletic event is an experience as close as many of us come to something like transcendence. If we are deceived into believing these gods and goddesses dance on their fields of glory filled with nothing but ambrosia, what’s the harm?
I can hear the counter argument. We have an obligation to the truth. Transcendence and the need for some collective vision of the good larger than our individual interests can best be served by being truthful to the government. But that argument ignores the insipid reality that our courts permit the government to lie to us, to withhold information from us, to treat us as the means to ends the government believes we ought to serve. A government, and its agents, that routinely uses deceit forfeits our respect. When a citizen can be prosecuted for using the same tools the government uses – strategic deceit - the game is far from ennobling.
I am not much of a baseball fan, and I don’t particularly care for Barry Bonds. But this week I am rooting for him as I never did when he was on the playing field. My government is prosecuting him for reasons unclear to me. Yes, Bonds probably lied under oath; he would have been wiser simply to plead the Fifth Amendment. But how many lies were told to witnesses in the investigation of Bonds? I hope the jury returns a not guilty verdict.
This prosecution is a waste of time. What next? Actresses targeted for dangerous breast implants? How about prosecuting federal agents for the deceit they uses as a routine part of their employment?