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“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.” The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Rickey Ray Rector. That’s who came to mind as I watched Roger Clemens testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Rector, you may recall, had the misfortune of being an inmate on Arkansas’s death row when Governor Bill Clinton needed badly to make his tough-on-crime bones during the 1992 presidential race. Rector had shot and killed one man and then days later, after agreeing to surrender to authorities to face charges in that crime, shot and killed Arkansas Police Officer Robert Martin. Those aggravating factors made his crimes subject to the severest reprisal.
There was one salient mitigating circumstance: After shooting Officer Martin, Rector pushed the gun against his own skull and atomized the front of his brain. He had, in essence, lobotomized himself. The Arkansas Judiciary, in its infinite and infallible wisdom, decided Rickey Ray could stand trial for his crimes, though experts estimated his IQ at around 70. Not to be outdone in bloodlust, a jury convicted Rector and he was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Such was Clinton’s ardor for justice, or at least the appearance of it, that he left the campaign trail and flew back to Arkansas to preside from a decorous proximity over the execution. He didn’t actually attend the slaughter, of course. Unseen by the Governor were Rector’s last moments on Earth, with which he reputedly busied himself contemplating rather bold plans for the future. He told his lawyer, hours before his demise, “I’m going to vote for Clinton in the fall.” And he assured prison officials, to their horror, he was saving the pecan pie that had accompanied his final meal “for later.” The wretched spectacle of Rector sickened nearly everyone complicit in orchestrating his extermination—the warden, chaplain, even some of Officer Martin’s brother policemen. Governor Clinton later strained his theatric tendons in expressing his agony over the decision in a phone conversation with a colleague—that is, until he learned Rector hadn’t been put to death yet.
The vascular complications of the antipsychotic drugs Rickey Ray was taking had made the location of a vein an indelicate business. Ever solicitous, he obliged his liquidators by aiding in the search. Finally, after an hour in which the childlike Rector cried out several times in obvious pain—to the great distress of witnesses assembled in expectation of a more somber affair—it was decided that his arm would be slashed open and a catheter inserted to administer the deathblow.
The pointless and pathetic specter of one sacrificial imbecile loomed, in my mind, over another on February 13th. Democratic members of Congress battered major league pitcher Roger Clemens with a fusillade of questions about his alleged decade-long use of an illicit cocktail of steroids and human growth hormone [hGH]. Clemens’s testimony throughout the 4 ½-hour hearing was achingly, invariably untutored and incoherent. At one point, asked to explain an inconsistency between his testimony and the affidavit of his friend and former teammate, Clemens responded: “Andy and I's relationship was close enough to know that if I would have known that he was—had done hGH, which I now know, that he—if he was knowingly knowing that I had taken hGH, we would have talked about the subject.” What a conversation that would have been.
I fully expected Clemens, when pressed, to tell the assembled lawmakers that he was saving his alibis and exculpatory evidence “for later.” Of course, he had no such resort to truth. But the inarticulacy of this unshrinkable moron only underscored the poverty of Major League Baseball’s truth and reconciliation charade.
Forget for the moment his lawyers’ reckless decision to deliver their woefully unequipped client unto the rigors of congressional testimony. Nobody could adequately state why the Oversight Committee should have been convened for this purpose in the first place. Or, for that matter, why this dubious business should have monopolized the cable news airwaves for an entire afternoon. A few stolid observers, including MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell—whose reliably hackneyed insights always sound as though they were filched in off-camera, knifepoint debriefings of harried network interns—mumbled unpersuasively about baseball’s antitrust exemption as a motive.
Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, gallantly averred, in his too-prescient opening statement, that “while today's hearing may be awkward and joyless…[w]e are here to again try to disrupt and discredit the crass messages aimed at our children.” To see Davis, it’s easy to appreciate his special interest in children. With his hophead gaze and neon carnie hairdo, he looks like the sort of guy who’d date your mother just to molest your little brother. It’s not just his muculent aspect, however, that makes this colorless sanctimony so unpalatable. Davis revealed that he and his fellow representatives had a day earlier been privy to “the dangerous and phony messages being sent to young athletes that there are magic pills and wonder drugs that can grease their path to the Hall of Fame.”
This is an especially curious admission, given the actual, substantive findings of the preceding hearing didn’t figure at all in the questions posed to Clemens, or in the ensuing melodrama with his chief accuser, former trainer Brian McNamee. In fact, for all the purported concern about America’s youth, the transcript of that earlier—and, one could easily venture, more pertinent—hearing remained unavailable as of this printing. Instead, the Committee devoted its resources to rushing a partial transcript of the shambolic Clemens proceedings onto its website for public consumption. Thus, it would be easy to dismiss Clemens as a picknose dissembler when he told Republican Virgina Foxx, “I don't know enough about [hGH]. It doesn't help you.” Except, according to all available medical research on healthy persons, he’s correct.
In fact, to hear the government’s own experts, calling hGH “performance enhancing” seems premature, at best. Two of the four medical doctors on that earlier panel gave statements to the Committee in which they disputed popular notions of the hormone’s empowering properties. Dr. Thomas Perls told the Committee “there is no credible scientific evidence that hGH substantively increases muscle strength or aerobic exercise capacity in normal individuals.” His colleague, Dr. Todd Schlifstein, concurred that, “When studying the performance enhancing effects of hGH by itself, it has failed to improve performance.”
None of this comes close to exonerating Clemens, who denies allegations he used hGH in concert with a regimen of anabolic steroids—a combination Schlifstein said “increases muscle strength, speed and size,” resulting in “increased performance.” It undeniably raises questions, though, about the public discourse on sport and science, and our concepts of competition and innovation. Schlifstein acknowledged the results of studies on the combined effects of hGH and steroids are “mixed.” His definition of enhanced performance itself—“an increase in speed or strength in a measureable [sic] activity without practice of that activity”—seems inadequate. He provided the lone example of a bench press. At the risk of oversimplification: Mechanically speaking, aren’t weight training and even bodybuilding worlds apart from hitting homeruns and throwing curveballs?
What is one to make, too, of the odd schism in baseball between players who have admitted to using steroids and those who claim only to have dabbled with hGH? All the panelists agreed simply that hGH helped produce lean muscle mass. And while Schlifstein testified to witnessing “case evidence” of its regenerative capability, Dr. Alan Rogol—who also testified—told NPR in an interview: “There are clearly no data that show that.”
Asked in the same interview about pitcher Andy Pettitte, who admitted to taking two hormone injections to speed recovery from an injury, Rogol replied, “to use it for only two days absolutely doesn’t make sense.” He said it would take “weeks’ worth [to] promote healing—if that’s what it did.” Rogol added, “It’s all theoretical…Do we know that it helps? Absolutely not.”
Pettitte and players like retired Cardinals’ second baseman Fernando Vina are on record asserting that hGH didn’t aid their healing. Meanwhile, the internet presently offers numerous opportunities to buy spurious, but potentially dangerous, “hGH pills”—supplements the panel decried as patently ineffectual: hGH must be injected, which only magnifies its potential risks. Gee, doesn’t this sound like the sort of information you’d be eager to disseminate to concerned parents and their credulous, perpetually endangered offspring? Even more so than debating whether or not a festering sore on Roger Clemens’s posterior bled through the seat of his designer trousers?
Except the public immolation of Clemens wasn’t about protecting kids, or anything remotely so noble. It was about legitimizing the Mitchell Report, an absurdly cynical and extravagant boondoggle—even by bureaucratic standards. Despite its impressive 409-page heft, inside the report is a startlingly wispy text. With its—in Rep. Davis’s words—“sordid picture of…players injecting each other with illegal substances right in their locker rooms”; and the grim, methodical fetishization of athletes’ bare, tensed buttocks, the report does little more than cement its place in the canon of homoerotic pulp.
As the sui generis sports scribe Dave Zirin has noted, the report, based entirely on hearsay, names a mere 86 players out of the 5,000 who took a swing in the “Steroid Era.” That’s less than 2%, a figure not even former Senator George Mitchell, whose name stains the document’s cover, can articulately defend. It hasn’t even stopped teams from signing players named in the investigation. And, argues Zirin, the report is queerly global and meticulously cross-sectioned, encompassing players from every ethnic background and across the talent spectrum. It’s like a salad bar of innuendo.
All of this dross was burnished and handsomely collated, at the unaccountable sum of $20 million, for an ostensibly serious purpose. In truth, it is a facile and falsely contrite apologia on behalf of Major League Baseball’s moneyed interests. Mitchell, with his senatorial pedigree and financial stakes in both Disney (corporate parent of MLB partner ESPN) and the Boston Red Sox, was the symmetrically compromised proxy for this fool’s errand. His involvement guaranteed neither the owners, nor Commissioner Bud Selig, would be made to answer for their very profitable neglect of the American pastime. Instead, Mitchell tersely assessed the matter as a “collective failure.”
No owner has ever been asked by Mitchell or by Congress how he could have ignored the very lucrative and unprecedented late-‘90s homerun explosion. No investigative body or legal authority has inquired whether these billionaires—including former Rangers’ owner and Clemens friend George W. Bush—who presumably took an exacting interest in their invested fortunes, enabled or facilitated the distribution of illicit chemicals to their employees. How about: Have they been to a fucking game in the past ten years?
And how does one truly quantify the gains made from steroids by professional sluggers in the context of rules changes—a contracted strike zone, smaller stadiums—also enacted to “enhance performance”? More pointedly, why wouldn’t Roger Clemens, consummate competitor, seek any available remedy to these “stacked” odds? Rather than these uneasy questions, the American public is once more driven to distraction with the lurid and simplistic lexicon of our insoluble drug hysteria.
Clemens invited the unfriendly scrutiny of the Democratic Congress with his unregenerate protestations of innocence. In concocting his indefensible assertions, he employed the same witless bravura that served him so well on the mound. Like Rickey Ray Rector, another useful idiot, he was expected to go quietly. May his discordant howls echo in the ears of those guilty of the greater crime.
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