Here is the War on Steroids in a nutshell: Greg Anderson, the personal trainer who refused to testify against Barry Bonds, spent more time in prison on contempt-of-court charges than any athlete convicted of steroid-related offenses and every chemist that manufactured the drugs.
The obstruction-of-justice charge that stuck to Barry Bonds this week likely will lead to zero jail time, and it was typical of the latest in America's unwinnable wars, all of which are wonderful in theory and defective in practice. Causes that require the hearts and minds of people fade when people stop caring, and by the time Bonds left a San Francisco courthouse, even the most ardent anti-steroid devotees had to ask: All that, for this?
The millions of tax dollars wasted pursuing athletes instead of, you know, criminals. And the thousands of man-hours approved by government higher-ups, and their bosses, and their bosses' bosses, to fulfill a cause that went stale years ago. All that bought a few low-level guilty verdicts.
The winner wasn't the government, even if it got Bonds' pelt, and the winner wasn't Bonds, either, not with his reputation stained and the tire tracks of the alphabet agencies imprinted in his back. Major League Baseball, in a most curious twist, won the war aimed directly at the problem it created.
Baseball ignored a decade of its players treating themselves as pharmacological experiments. Records fell, outrage boiled and the sport trembled. The benefit of performance-enhancing drugs was obvious. They may have been just as prevalent in football, but quarterbacks weren't throwing 90-yard spirals and cornerbacks weren't running 3.9 in the 40. Integrity was compromised and the fans lost interest.
Then something happened: Steroid overload. Even the most rational fans that disliked the moral implications of PED use came back to the game. The public recognized that complete eradication of drugs was impossible, and forgave enough that criminal proceedings long past their due date left everyone yawning.
[Related: What is obstruction of justice?]
Five years ago, the Bonds trial would have led the evening news. Now it wasn't the trial of the century, decade, year, month, or even day. The guilty verdict stirred interest more for its obtuseness – the jury nailed Bonds for dancing around a question in sworn testimony, the same question he later answered – than the fact that the single-season and career home run leader was convicted in a federal court.
Almost certainly Roger Clemens' trial will prove the same anticlimax, a prosecution more for the sake of the prosecutors and law enforcement than the public. That's what the War on Steroids turned into: a vanity game. The initial pursuit to help MLB clean itself up was fair, because even when shamed publicly baseball took years to adopt a worthwhile drug program. When the original BALCO case became a feeder for the government's pursuit of Bonds, and when the Mitchell Report birthed another round of Congressional grandstanding – of the people, by the people and for the people, huh? – it got out of hand.
These cases were supposed to provide closure, and in a sense they did: The majority of people realized they really don't care anymore. As baseball's biggest scandal in decades nears its end, the only chatter left about steroids concerns their effect on Hall of Fame voting, a fairly benign consequence for such a hullabaloo.
The tarnish on the game lessens by the day. While Bonds' prime is not a time MLB embraces and his records stand aside an invisible asterisk, it can be argued that baseball lost more fans to the strike in 1994 than to steroid indignation. Attendance, after all, suffered far worse after the strike than it did amid any of the steroid issues.
In the future, the odd PED case will pop up, and if the user is a superstar, like Manny Ramirez(notes), the news will serve as a reminder of these last two decades, when embarrassment abounded. The only question is whose was worse: that of the players who torpedoed their reputations by injecting and ingesting PEDs, or of the myriad others in suits whose boldness turned hypocritical?
The same selfishness that pervaded steroid users afflicted those on the opposite side. The anti-doping fiends profited off the drug testing they insisted upon. The moral police used the time-honored canard – the safety of children – to advocate against PED use. The cops and government turned power into score-settling trials.
It's no wonder baseball came out so well. Turns out MLB was no worse than the people running the War on Steroids.
- Barry Bonds