by Dave Zirin
This wasn’t supposed to happen in Barack Obama’s America. We were told that these sorts of prosecutions wouldn’t be the priority of an Eric Holder Justice Department. But just as Guantanamo Bay detention centers and military tribunals have remained in place, the perjury witch-hunt trial of Major League Baseball’s home run king, Barry Lamar Bonds, continued unabated and has now reached a predictably ugly conclusion.
After seven years and millions of dollars in court costs, Bonds has been found guilty of obstruction of justice. As for the all-important three perjury charges, the jury couldn’t agree whether Bonds lied to a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) when he swore under oath that he never knowingly took performance enhancing drugs.
Without corroborating evidence from Bonds’ trainer and lifelong friend, Greg Anderson, the jury was deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial on all perjury charges. But the obstruction of justice conviction makes Bonds a convicted felon and sets him up for a May 20 hearing where he could get as many as 10 years behind bars.
What did Bonds do to “obstruct justice”? According to one juror, “Steve,” the obstruction of justice charge was reached because “the whole grand jury testimony was a series of evasive answers. There were pointed questions that were asked two or three or four different ways that never got clearly answered. That’s how we came to that.” Wow. Apparently, a “series of evasive answers” lines you up for a 10-year sentence behind bars. By that standard, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby should be breaking rocks in Leavenworth for their performance at the Valerie Plame trial.
As BALCO founder Victor Conte – who is no friend of Bonds – said to USA Today: “This verdict absolutely makes no sense to me. Of all of these counts, the one that makes the least sense to me is the obstruction charge. Tell me how there was obstruction of justice. This is all about the selected persecution of Barry Bonds. This is not fair. I was the heavy in this. I accepted full responsibility and the consequences and went to prison. How is that obstruction? Doesn’t make sense.”
“Of all of these counts, the one that makes the least sense to me is the obstruction charge. Tell me how there was obstruction of justice. This is all about the selected persecution of Barry Bonds. This is not fair. I was the heavy in this. I accepted full responsibility and the consequences and went to prison.” – BALCO founder Victor Conte
It doesn’t. After all the public money, drama and hysterics, this is what we’re left with. He was “evasive.” Keep in mind that we live in a country where the U.S. Department of Justice has not pursued one person for the investment banking fraud that cratered the U.S. economy in 2008. Not one indictment has been issued to a single Bush official on charges of ordering torture or lying to provoke an invasion of Iraq. Instead, we get farcical reality television like the U.S. vs. Barry Bonds.
This was a trial where you longed for the somber dignity of a Judge Judy. Since Anderson wouldn’t talk, the government was left with two real witnesses: Kimberly Bell, Bonds mistress, brought in to discuss his sexual dysfunctions resulting from steroids, and Steve Hoskins, the business manager whom Bonds fired for alleged theft and fraud. But their real star was a once-anonymous IRS official named Jeff Novitsky, who has proudly seen Bonds as an all-consuming obsession, U.S. Constitution be damned.
ESPN legal expert Lester Munson described the verdict as “a major triumph for federal agent Jeff Novitzky.” That alone should chill our bones. Without a warrant, Novitzky started his BALCO investigation by rooting through Victor Conte’s trash and taking it back to his house to sift through in his leisure hours. But Conte was a nothing to Novitzky. From the beginning, his sights were on Barry Bonds.
Jonathan Littman of Yahoo! Sports wrote: “Two agents working on the case knew that Novitzky ‘hated’ Bonds, and heard him brag about his hopes to cash in on a book deal. The agents demanded to see copies of his reports and were rebuffed by federal officials. Novitzky, however, was given carte blanche by the head of the IRS to drop the normal duties of an IRS agent – investigating tax fraud and money laundering – and became our de facto national sports doping czar.”
In 2004, accompanied by 11 agents, Novitsky marched into the offices of sports-drug testing monolith Comprehensive Drug Testing. Carrying a warrant which authorized him to see the sealed drug tests of just 10 baseball players, he paraded out with 4,000 supposedly confidential medical files, including records for every baseball player in the major leagues. As Jon Pessah wrote in ESPN the Magazine, “Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky’s actions a ‘callous disregard’ for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence.”
During closing arguments, Bonds’ attorney, Cristina Arguedas, looked at the jury as she pointed at the prosecution, accused them of misconduct and asked, “Why are we even here?”
It’s a good question. But asking the question is much safer than answering it. We’re here because Major League Baseball and the U.S. government have long decided that Barry Bonds would shoulder the burden for the steroid era. We’re here because a surly Black athlete who thinks that the press is just a step above vermin was easy pickings for an industry rife with systemic corruption.
Major League Baseball made billions off of the steroid era, an era many now see as a rancid, tainted lie. It was an era where owners became obscenely wealthy and billions in public funds were spent on ballparks. The press cheered and America dug the long ball.
Major League Baseball and the U.S. government have long decided that Barry Bonds would shoulder the burden for the steroid era … (yet) Major League Baseball made billions off of the steroid era.
Now the dust has cleared, our cities have been looted, Barry Bonds could be going to prison, and Commissioner Bud Selig still has a job – and a RAISE. With apologies to Harvey Dent, this is the story of the Black athlete today: Die a hero or live long enough to be a villain. And the men in the suits walk – or, in Selig’s case, slouch – all the way to the bank.
Around the start of the trial, nearly a decade ago, Bonds said: “This is something we, as African-American athletes, live with every day. I don’t need a headline that says, ‘Bonds says there’s racism in the game of baseball.’ We all know it. It’s just that some people don’t want to admit it. They’re going to play dumb like they don’t know what the hell is going on.”
We shouldn’t play dumb either. Both President Obama and Attorney General Holder said words to the effect that the U.S. government would no longer be in the steroid-inspection business. Like so much else in the last two years, it was just words.
Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary, “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com. This story first appeared in The Nation.