- Tom Farrey, Writer, Reporter
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The BALCO investigation sparked a national debate and spurred Congressional hearings about performance-enhancing drugs. The ethics of pro athletes and the policies of league programs were put under the microscope, changing the way we look at historic sports achievements. Admissions of guilt were extracted from the middlemen in one steroid ring that served dozens of famous athletes.
For those reasons, the federal prosecutor who called the shots behind the scenes declares the case a success.
"I can ask the rhetorical question: Would both houses on [Capitol Hill] have conducted hearings?" Kevin Ryan, U.S. Attorney for the North District of California, told ESPN in an interview. "Would Major League Baseball and the players' association have come back to the table and redone their steroids testing program? Would the [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] be conducting hearings as we speak, if it were not for this case? It's had a huge impact, I think, in a variety of ways on professional sports and even on the high school level."
Still to be determined, though, is whether all the attention given to steroids in the past two years will lead to less -- or more -- use of these drugs in American sports. Longtime steroids expert Charles Yesalis, who testified before Congress, points to what happened after Ben Johnson tested positive in the 1988 Olympics, and Mark McGwire announced his use of a steroid precursor a decade later.
"[Those events] significantly increased use and I suspect the same thing is going to happen this time, especially if we don't put money into the education of kids and parents and coaches and principals, if they don't stop denying there's a problem," said Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Penn State University.
Last October, President Bush signed the Anabolic Steroids Control Act that, among other measures, called for $90 million to fund steroids prevention in schools over the next six years. Politicians got their headlines -- but the money was never appropriated. Bush's proposed budget this year included no funding for school-based drug prevention programs.
Steroids prevention experts applaud federal prosecutors for exposing and legislators for highlighting the prevalence of steroids in sports, from the professional levels down to the high schools. But they are frustrated with the lack of a comprehensive follow-up program, as the revelations could leave young athletes with the notion they need drugs to compete.
"They hyped steroids but didn't do anything to change what's happening," said Dr. Linn Goldberg, who testified before Congress as director of the ATLAS program that has successfully proven to reduce steroid use by young athletes. "They're just giving it lip service."
More than 500,000 high school students have tried steroids, nearly triple the number from a decade ago, according to a 2003 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), among those leading the charge on Capitol Hill, said Congress has freed up $7.4 million for steroids prevention programs through a bill unrelated to the Anabolic Steroids Control Act. And he expressed confidence that eventually he can get a commitment for the $15 million a year for six years that was authorized to fund the programs.
"The money's going to come, and I'm the guy who's going to shepherd it and make sure it gets through," Sweeney said.
Congress also is considering three separate bills that would stiffen penalties for professional athletes -- the role models for young athletes -- who use steroids. Sweeney said he expects the bills to be merged in September with a vote on the house floor by October. Congress will insist that leagues allow an outside body, such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, to handle the drug testing program, he said. It's a measure the NFL and the baseball players' union have so far resisted.
"If you keep allowing the fox to guard the hen house, nothing -- and I mean nothing -- will change," Yesalis said. "If it continues to be a closed, nontransparent system where the leagues are doing their own testing, then nothing really will have been achieved."
Concern about the potential for diluted legislation partly explains why steroids prevention experts are disappointed in the government's plea deals with the principal defendants in the BALCO case. They were hoping for a high-profile trial this fall that could have put athletes on the stand in open court, identified the suppliers and recipients of the drugs, and effectively kept the pressure on Congress and the leagues to confront the problem.
Instead, the government agreed to dismiss 40 of the 42 counts in exchange for admissions of guilt on two charges: money laundering and conspiracy to distribute steroids. For BALCO founder Victor Conte, prosecutors are recommending a sentence of four months in prison with four months home confinement. Sentencing guidelines call for Greg Anderson, the personal trainer for San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, to get anywhere from zero to six months in prison.
BALCO vice president James Valente, who handled the baseball clients and Anderson for the company, is likely to get no more than probation. A fourth defendant, track coach Remy Korchemny, is close to finalizing a plea deal that also could involve little or no jail time. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston has scheduled an Oct. 18 sentencing hearing.
The plea deals do not require the defendants to help prosecutors make cases against athletes. Bonds reportedly told a grand jury that he took substances from Anderson that match the description of the drugs found in the BALCO investigation -- he said he thought they were flaxseed oil and an arthritis balm -- but his former girlfriend has alleged that he admitted to her that he has used performance-enhancing drugs. Ryan declined comment on whether the government plans to pursue charges against athletes.
Going to trial with the BALCO case could have exposed the ways in which athletes beat drug tests, said Steven Ungerleider, a steroids expert who wrote "Faust's Gold," a book that detailed how doctors and trainers in the former East Germany gave drugs to teenage athletes without their knowledge. No one convicted in a subsequent trial went to prison, but secrets of the trade were revealed. And the potential consequences of steroid abuse were put on public display.
"It's unfortunate that we didn't come to trial and hear witnesses [in the BALCO case]," Ungerleider said. "We learned a lot in the German trials, and the media covered it well. No one walked away with ambiguity about the dangers of steroids. We saw deformed babies."
Ryan said the government had little choice but to cut plea deals in the BALCO case, which gained worldwide attention because the company served dozens of well-known athletes. Prosecutors were handicapped by light federal sentencing guidelines for steroids and the volume of drugs found. Investigators confiscated about 250 units of steroids and other substances, hardly the cache of drug kingpins.
"For example, if Mr. Conte walked into court today and pled guilty to all 42 counts in the original indictment, he would be in a sentencing range of only six to 12 months under the sentencing guidelines," Ryan said. "We factored in a lot of things, [such as] whether we wanted to go to trial -- a long, drawn-out trial -- and whether it was necessary under these circumstances given the evidence that we had and the conduct that was involved."
Anderson, facing little time behind bars and defiant to the end, made it clear he just wasn't going to talk about Bonds, New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi or any of his other clients.
"He never wanted to drag baseball through the courts," said Anna Ling, his attorney. "He never wanted to drag baseball players' names through the mud. He's lived up to that. He's an honorable man."
No matter how Congress, schools and the leagues move forward, Internal Revenue Service special agent Roger Wirth, who ran the BALCO investigation, argues that his branch of the government did its part by shining a bright light on steroid use in sports. He calls the probe one of the most "high-impact" in IRS history.
"There are dirty little secrets out there and this case has done a good job of uncovering those," he said.
Now we'll see if all that sunshine cleanses, or makes the problem grow.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fallout of the BALCO investigation brought much public posturing but ultimately little change in the age of steroids.