Keeping Score

Lesson of the Barry Bonds Trial? No More Steroid Trials!

As the home-run king faces a jury in San Francisco, the perjury case has elicited widespread indifference. Should the government keep chasing jocks it suspects of cheating?

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Paul Sakuma / AP

Barry Bonds enters a federal courthouse in San Francisco on March 24, 2011

This weekend, college basketball will whittle its postseason tournament down to the Final Four. The NFL’s owners and players are still fighting, so there may be no football come fall. The NBA playoff push is on. Baseball’s opening day, and the Masters, is just around the corner.

Oh, and by the way, baseball’s home-run king is currently on trial for perjury.

(See pictures of the evolution of Barry Bonds.)

I’ll place a healthy bet on which story you care about the least.

After all, it’s been almost a decade since Barry Bonds, in 2003, told a grand jury in the case against BALCO, the infamous Northern California outfit that distributed performance-enhancing drugs to athletes, that he unknowingly took steroids. Now the government has finally dragged Bonds into court after years of building a case against him that, according to an estimate cited by Sports Illustrated, has already cost some $6 million.

The prosecutors — and the public at large — do not believe that a man so fanatical about his muscle tone could ever be so naive as to rub a designer drug on his body while thinking it was arthritis cream. A major problem with the government’s case, however, is that the man who allegedly provided Bonds with performance-enhancing drugs, Greg Anderson, chose to return to jail on March 22, for a fourth time, rather than cooperate with the probe. So the government called on Bonds’ former friend and business partner Steve Hoskins, who taped a conversation with Anderson in which the pair discussed Bonds’ drug use. The prosecution will also call Kimberly Bell, Bonds’ former mistress, who will likely describe how Bonds’ body showed telltale signs of steroid use.

Even without Anderson’s testimony, the evidence could convict Bonds. But whether or not Bonds lands in jail for what is sure to be a small amount of time — or just as likely is sentenced to a period of home confinement — it’s become increasingly hard to see how the case against the superstar has been worth it.

When the Mitchell Report — which fingered notable names like Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte as cheaters — was released in 2007, the country was already starting to suffer from steroid fatigue. More than three years later, people are really tired of hearing about Bonds. We have more important things to worry about than past transgressions of a sullen superstar. Plus, fans have more compelling, seemingly steroid-free players like San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum or Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton.

(Should you root for Barry Bonds?)

In a strange way, Bonds’ surliness may be turning public opinion against the government, and in his favor. Bonds mistreated his minions and many teammates. His contempt for the press turned reporters into sympathetic figures (no easy task). Few people outside San Francisco liked him. During the summer of 2007, we all wanted his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s home-run record to just end already. We applauded when nobody signed him the next year. We wanted him out of our lives.

So instead of coming off as people pursuing noble truths, these prosecutors are the ones bringing back a nuisance. And the best defense against pests is to ignore them. No wonder, then, that so many people are indifferent about this trial. The country’s sad fiscal state also makes Bonds seem like a victim of mismanaged priorities. Couldn’t the Justice Department’s resources be used for more pressing criminal cases?

Fans surely weren’t as concerned with these questions back in 2005, when Congress held hearings about baseball’s laughable policing of steroid use. But now what’s the incremental benefit of this trial? It’s certainly not teaching any new lessons. We all know steroids are dangerous, that cheating and lying are immoral. A Bonds conviction won’t add any significant strength to that message. Sure, you can say Bonds deserves to sit through a trial, and perhaps go to jail, because he lied under oath. But is spending so much time and money chasing a liar worth the cost? Especially since many people have lied about worse things, like violent criminal acts, under oath, but have escaped prosecution.

The Bonds case could also bode well for Clemens, and maybe Lance Armstrong. The perjury trial against Clemens, who denied using performance-enhancing drugs to Congress, starts in July. Can the public stomach any more federal expenditures in pursuit of a jock who hasn’t played in three years? And if the government eventually indicts Armstrong, who has also denied drug use despite rumors and reports to the contrary, will that case be worth it too? He last won a Tour de France in 2005. Many of his competitors probably cheated, so he may have gained no real advantage even if he had used performance-enhancing drugs. And his prodigious fundraising efforts on behalf of cancer research will always make him a hero to many.

The government needs to move on, just like the public it supposedly serves.