Professional Athletes Treated Differently in Steroid Cases

Sally Jenkins, writing in the Washington Post, observes that professional athletes who use anabolic steroids are treated more harshly than others who have committed similar crimes.

Perjury cases are rarely prosecuted by the Justice Department according to Jenkins:

It charged just 99 people with the crime in 2006, out of more than 88,000 federal defendants. Between 2001 and 2006, 566 perjury cases were filed — about 1 percent of all criminal charges. Cases brought before the federal criminal justice system are supposed to be top-notch in quality, and of overriding size and importance.

Unless, of course, the defendant is famous.

Prosecuting trivial lies by the likes of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Marion Jones in federal court is highly unusual. This is especially true when serious lies have been told to Congress with no perjury charges:

The fact is, any number of public figures, starting with Big Tobacco executives, have told much bigger lies to Congress than Clemens did, and none faced perjury charges. You want a brazen, damaging public lie? How about, “Tobacco isn’t addictive”?

Professional athletes are treated differently than non-famous steroid users too. Usually, the government targets steroid distributors and not steroid users. But things change when the steroid user is a professional athlete.

Normally the government doesn’t go after the drug users; it wants the sellers and distributors. But in this situation it’s the inverse. It flies in the face of any sensible anti-drug effort. Something is fundamentally wrong. Everything is backward. What are we doing?

There are several explanations why steroid-using pro athletes are treated differently than everyone else.

Jenkins writes that it is a lame attempt by the government to make an example out of sports heroes who set a bad example for the children. But how can letting the sellers and distributors of performance-enhancing drugs go free send the right message to the children?

Law professor Frank Bowman justifies this approach from a prosecutorial perspective:

The hierarchy of the performance-enhancing drug market for professional athletes is exactly the reverse. The balance of power, money, and culpability lies with the players in their relationships with guys like Roger Clemens’ trainer Brian McNamee or former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski… If relative culpability is to determine who is prosecuted and who is allowed to go free, it’s the players who should be indicted.

But I think Lou Schuler offers the best explanation as to why professional athletes are treated differently in steroid cases in his critique today of the cult of celebrity.

Fame, in Western civilization, has a narrative structure. You’re born to be a god or hero, you perform spectacular feats of strength or bravery or intellect, and then when you get to the top, you screw up. The gods get to remain gods despite their blunders — the monotony of their immortality has a lot to do with their need to beat the hornet’s nest from time to time — but the mortals or semi-mortals who achieve fame pay a terrible price. The demons that drive them to greatness inevitably get the better of them…

The trinity of celebrityhood that I mentioned — athletes, entertainers, politicians — provide ready-made fodder for the narrative. The talent, magnetism, energy, and narcissism that drive people into the spotlight are the same qualities that make them likely to screw up at some point. It’s just a matter of time.

We love our sports heroes. But we love to see them fall from grace even more!

Sally Jenkins on anabolic steroids and doping
Sally Jenkins on anabolic steroids and doping

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