Commentary

The bang (?) for the Barry Bonds bucks

Tax day is as good a time as any to think about the money we just spent on his trial

Originally Published: April 18, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Tax FormsESPN.com IllustrationHere's why today is a particularly distressing time to think about the cost of the Barry Bonds trial.

I'm filing my taxes "electronically" this year. By which I mean I'm filling this pillowcase with nickels and dead laptop batteries before I throw it onto the doorstep of my local IRS office. Shhhhh.

To further commemorate my midnight payment into the national pyramid scheme promoting our general Welfare, let's talk for a few minutes today about Barry Bonds, baseball and the Obstruction of Justice.

After all, those were our tax dollars at work.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuNow we know … well, that our tax dollars didn't go very far in proving Bonds did anything wrong.

Stipulate first that the money we've spent in pursuit of Barry Bonds all these years is infinitesimal in comparison to other government projects, like the Hoover Dam, or Medicare. What it cost to finally get that meaningless single-count conviction against him wouldn't pay for the pencil lead it takes to keep adding zeroes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter development budget. The cost overruns alone on that one program could fund NPR for the next 1,000 years.

So the price we paid to shame a shameless baseball player in public without ever actually proving he did anything wrong was relatively low. And will continue to be so even when he has that conviction tossed out on appeal, as seems likely.

Still, those unreckoned millions spent chasing the shadows cast by his giant noggin could've sent a few hundred thousand poor kids to school riding a hot, healthy breakfast for a year or two, I'm sure. And might in that way have made a better answer to our "Won't someone think of the children?" hysteria.

Chief farceur in this long-running opéra bouffe was, of course, Bud Selig. He and Major League Baseball deferred their comical dirty work to the two cartoon mercenaries best suited to long-form character assassination: the U.S. government, the only bureaucratic organism dumber and clumsier than organized baseball itself; and the cannibal sporting press, dumber still, blind to the obvious, ethically bereft, and with a considerable gift for gratuitous cruelty.

That both then managed to do the job more poorly than Selig himself was the only real surprise. If only the owners had shown the stones or the stomach to start handing out real suspensions 10 years ago, all this might have been avoided. Thereby raising the question of whose testicles were the most shrunken by all that big league steroid abuse.

[+] EnlargeJeff Novitzky
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNext up for Jeff Novitzky and the government: Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong.

Anyway, just four short decades after steroids became commonplace throughout international sports, American baseball decided enough was enough. And a photocopy of the Mitchell report, a lifetime supply of asterisks, and last week's souvenir snapshot of Barry "U.S." Bonds walking out of that courthouse is what baseball fans will have to show for it.

Not even Jeff Novitzky, dogged former IRS agent turned secret agent for the FDA, could produce enough evidence to prove that Bonds had knowingly used steroids. This after nearly a decade spent rooting through Barry's trash and that of his chemists. In fact, one assumes the lion's share of the government budget for the investigation went to pay Novitzky's dry cleaner.

Next in line for the Javert of the jockstrap, the cases of Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong. Two more retired athletes wealthy and famous beyond counting, now quaking (or not) in the face of "justice" neither swift nor sure.

Again, we could be using all this federal money to do something worthwhile -- perfect the flying car, feed the hungry, house the homeless, seize the Mets.

Those of you who want big government out of sports entirely will no doubt petition President Trump or Celebrity Attorney General Lenny Dykstra for relief or amnesty in the years ahead. I applaud you.

The rest of us are left to muddle through the moral, chemical and ethical wreckage of the sports we once loved, wondering which careers were authentic and which were not; which players were heroes and which were bums; which records and achievements were on the level and which were only miracles of science or alchemy.

I would thus suggest that rather than waste more of our hard-earned tax nickels and pillowcases on the prosecution/persecution of smug, long-retired millionaires, we fund instead an annual summit meeting of the smartest folks on Earth. These people -- philosophers and medical ethicists, chemists, doctors, molecular biologists, biomechanical engineers, quantum mathematicians, poets and scholars and kinesthesiologists -- would meet to think through the implications of human ingenuity and lay down some rules.

[+] EnlargeWitch Hunt
AP Photo/Eric RisbergWas it a witch hunt? Well, we didn't find any witches.

Because what is most remarkable in our species is our limitless invention. What is very much less remarkable is our understanding of what to do with it all. The endgame of our genius baffles us. Steroids are a good example of this, as is the recombinant manufacture of EPO, or the production of synthetic Human Growth Hormone. As is the atomic bomb.

We are often able to do a thing many years before we know whether or not it should even be done. We are then upended by the laws of unintended consequences. But knowing greed and the weakness of our motives as we do, and understanding the human capacity for graft and the debasements of ambition, this Council of Elders could make recommendations for our better conduct. Or at least for the improved running of our sports leagues.

Why shouldn't an aging professional athlete have access to safely prescribed HGH? Why shouldn't a team physician be able to prescribe anabolic steroids as part of a closely controlled workout regimen for a professional athlete? In what way is a higher red blood cell count more or less of an advantage to a 21st century athlete than a better diet, or access to antibiotics or arthroscopic surgery?

The trick to getting better answers is to ask better questions.

And by asking these questions openly when performance enhancement first became a viable and widespread chemical reality half a century ago, we might have saved ourselves the taxing misery of trying to rewrite history one asterisk at a time.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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