Why Does Roger Clemens Have to Take the Fall?


by Dave Zirin

Roger Clemens is about as popular in baseball circles as jock itch. The man is such a pariah, he makes Barry Bonds look like Justin Bieber. Yet we should hold the cheers over the recent news that Clemens has been indicted on perjury charges for lying in front of Congress on questions related to his much-denied steroid use.

However, the real question here is: Why Clemens was dragged in front of Congress in the first place? We can ask the same of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and all the players who have been put under the congressional hot lights. To put it bluntly, why have players, and not team owners, been given the third degree? Not one owner has ever been called to account for the steroid era in Major League Baseball. Not one person who has called an owner's box home has had to answer questions about steroid use.

This would be akin to investigating the oil rig workers after the Deepwater Horizon spill, but leaving BP bigwigs untouched. Yes, individual players may have made terrible personal decisions that sullied the game. But there's a systemic problem here, too. And the absence of corporate accountability around this issue is simply breathtaking.

In February 2005, Major League Commissioner Bud Selig — a former team owner himself — made the following statement about steroids: "I [had]never heard about it." That strains credulity to the breaking point. As sports writer D.K. Wilson has noted, "General managers know if a star player reported to spring training at 185 lbs. one season and 215 the next, and whether that newly added 30 pounds was fat or muscle, or a combination of both. As does the team owner — or at least one who's not asleep in the executive suite."

The issue of performance enhancing drugs had been discussed at Major League Baseball's winter ownership meetings as far back as 1988. Assuming he was awake at these meetings, Selig — then owner of the Milwaukee Brewers — would have heard the words of former Cleveland Indians trainer Brent Starr.

"Here's the thing that really bothers me," Starr said in 2007. "They sit there, meaning the commissioners office, Bud Selig and that group...They sit there and say, ‘Well, now that we know that this happened we're going to do something about it.' I have notes from the Winter Meetings where the owners group and the players association sat in meetings with the team physicians and team trainers. I was there. And team physicians stood up and said, ‘Look, we need to do something about this. We've got a problem here if we don't do something about it. That was in 1988.'"

The roots of the current crisis lie not in the individual moral failings of players like Clemens, but from systemic greed at the highest levels of the sport. The juicing of the game began in earnest in 1994, when a players' strike mutated into an owners lockout that led to the cancellation of the World Series. The popularity of what was once "America's pastime" sank to a shameful low.

Then, the muscles started coming in —  and the bucks along with them. The protracted pitching battles of old were replaced by games that were essentially home run derbies. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were, briefly, the heroes of the day. And so, helped by steroids, baseball came back into fashion as a new, juiced-up sport of A-Rod clones. Steroids were simply a quiet part of the marketing plan.

Therefore, despite your personal views on Roger Clemens, it must be acknowledged that the steroid era has been, to paraphrase a famous quote about the criminal justice system, like a magical fishing night that captures the minnows while the whales go free. Even when the minnows are as unpleasant as Clemens, this fundamental truth must be acknowledged.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]


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