Commentary

The misguided martyrdom of Barry Bonds

Updated: November 21, 2007, 7:27 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

In the days following his federal indictment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, Barry Bonds has stood at the center of the expected tumult, but his narrative has taken a curious turn toward martyrdom. His supporters -- who might be government detractors as much as Bonds supporters -- say he has been singled out by the government for using steroids, a drug so prevalent that an entire era has been named after it. He has been set apart from the rest of the world because he's black and refused to be passive in the face of federal pressure, they say.

As the World Series reached its conclusion last month, Bonds began embracing his victimization himself. He spoke to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and said his team, the Giants, "fired him." He later threatened to boycott the Hall of Fame if his 756th home run ball was displayed containing an asterisk.

If there is a pattern Bonds has followed, it is not traced along racial lines; rather, it's the pattern of entitlement and privilege. He is far from alone, instead joining a cadre of powerful people who, in this second gilded age, believe their position and financial power allow them to disregard the law.

Barry Bonds
Phil Carter/US PresswireBarry Bonds will likely be doing a lot of watching from here on out, now that the government has finally decided to exercise its authority.
Average people are tired of it. This country is already stacked toward the wealthy (mortgage interest is tax deductible; rent is not) and the privileged (the last president without an Ivy League degree was elected nearly 30 years ago).

Given the wealth and resources of celebrity figures today, the federal government, it seems, is the only body left that has the power to remind even home run hitters, movie stars and corporate executives that they cannot always rely on the private jet to make an easy escape from accountability.

Bonds is a polarizing figure to many people because, while he could have used his government-granted immunity to tell the truth during his four-year showdown with federal prosecutors, Bonds and his handlers instead counted on his wealth and his advantages to place him beyond the rules, beyond the law.

Like Bonds, Martha Stewart was indicted for lying to federal prosecutors. She believed her fame, resources, and the advantages of her position would allow her to simply dismiss what were very serious charges. The late Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were contemptuous of federal prosecutors during the Enron congressional hearings and later their criminal trials because they, like Bonds, believed in their invincibility. They had money. They had power. They might have defrauded millions of people of their savings -- hey, they weren't the only ones, they said -- but they thought they didn't have to answer to some G-man who drove a minivan and bought his clothes off the rack while they drove a Lexus.

Michael Vick is going to prison because he did not believe he had to be held accountable to federal authorities. He chose to treat law enforcement the same way he could respond to an interviewer in an open locker room. If he had been cooperative at any level of the federal investigation, he likely would not be spending Thanksgiving in prison.

In the BALCO case, there were numerous defendants and many targets, but one stood apart from the rest because of his wealth and, mostly, his defiance. Bonds and his attorneys fancy the idea that they were singled out, but nobody associated with BALCO has escaped cleanly. Bonds is the last domino. He and his trainer, Greg Anderson, are the only ones still standing from BALCO who haven't either pleaded guilty, cooperated fully, or both; and that explains the treatment given Bonds.

In fact, Bonds is the one the BALCO people -- Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, primarily -- protected the most. He was the most powerful of their clients, and the least cooperative with the government. Bonds treated federal officers as if they were rent-a-cops in the high school parking lot. He should have known that the competitive desire to win -- especially against trash-talking opponents -- exists outside the batter's box, too. The more he taunted prosecutors, the deeper their conviction of Bonds' guilt.

At one point in December 2003, Bonds and Jason Giambi were in the same position. But Bonds chose, in the eyes of the feds, to lie. Neither was to be charged with any crimes if they told the truth in a private setting, under oath. They testified to a federal grand jury in San Francisco a week apart, Bonds around Dec. 4 that year, Giambi on Dec. 11. The key difference between Bonds and Giambi, and the point at which their future paths began to diverge, can be traced to that week. According to the transcript of grand jury testimony obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle and published on Dec. 2, 2004, Giambi was asked specifically by assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nedrow about whether Greg Anderson supplied him with steroids:

Q: Did Mr. Anderson provide you with actual injectable testosterone?

A: Yes.

And then later, according to the Chronicle, Nedrow made reference to an alleged calendar of drug use seized during a raid on Anderson's home.

Q: OK. And this injectable T, or testosterone, is basically a steroid, correct?

A:Yes.

Q: And did he talk to you about the fact it was a steroid at the time?

A: Yeah, I mean, I -- I don't know if we got into a conversation about it, but we both knew about it, yes.

Giambi said Anderson described "the cream" and "the clear" as "an alternative to steroids, but it doesn't show on a steroid test."

Contrast that with Page 3, Line 2, of Bonds' indictment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges that was announced last week. The indictment reads as follows: On or about December 4, 2003, in the Northern District of California, the defendant, BARRY LAMAR BONDS, having taken an oath to testify truthfully in a proceeding before a Grand Jury sitting in the Northern District of California, unlawfully, willfully, knowingly, and contrary to such oath, did make false material declarations, that is, he gave the following underlined false testimony:

Q: I know the answer -- let me ask you this again. I know we kind of got into this. Let me be real clear about this. Did he [Anderson] ever give you anything that you knew to be a steroid? Did he ever give a steroid?

A: I don't think Greg would do anything like that to me and jeopardize our friendship. I just don't think he would do that.

Q: Well, when you say you don't think he would do that, to your knowledge, I mean, did you ever take any steroids that he gave you?

A: Not that I know of...

Q: Okay. So, I got to ask, Mr. Bonds. There's this number associated on a document with your name, and corresponding to Barry B. on the other document, and it does have these two listed anabolic steroids as testing positive in connection with it. Do you follow my question?

A: I follow where you're going, yeah.

Q: So, I guess I got to ask the question again, I mean, did you take steroids? And specifically this test the is (sic) in November of 2000. So I'm going to ask you in the weeks and months leading up to November 2000, were you taking steroids --

A: No.

Q: -- or anything like that?

A: No, I wasn't at all. I've never seen these documents. I've never seen these papers...

Q: So, starting in December 2001, on this page, again, there's BB here, which obviously are consistent with your initials; correct?

A: He could know other BBs.

Barry Bonds
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesThe time for Bonds to celebrate might be over for a while.
With the exception of the civil rights movement, which resulted in the rights of all citizens finally being enforced under law nearly a century after Reconstruction, the federal government can hardly be cast as heroic. But it should be noted that it has been the federal government -- and not the will of the leadership of professional sports leagues or the candor of their players -- that has punctured the lies of professional athletes. The BALCO investigation was initiated by the Internal Revenue Service and was never intended to uncover drug use by professional athletes. BALCO, the seminal congressional hearings of March 17, 2005, and then the 2006 raid of Jason Grimsley's house are the three most important events of the steroids era.

All three of these actions were powered by the force of the federal government. It was government that had the authority and the cudgel to force players and commissioners to grudgingly face their accountability, and face the children who idolize those players. Without government force, Mark McGwire would still be a hero, still be deceiving the public with the old saw that "there's nothing in a bottle to help you hit home runs." Without Congress and the Justice Department, there is no testing policy, no contrition, and no balance to the dishonesty that has changed how people both inside and outside baseball view the sport.

Nor should it be forgotten that it was only four years ago that players, executives and many writers -- whose job it is to hold powerful people accountable -- ridiculed anyone who suggested that steroid use was widespread in baseball. The speed with which the scope of the steroid problem was revealed would never have been possible without the government.

Much has been made of the federal government's astounding ability to win federal criminal cases. The United States government routinely condemns countries -- places such as China and Cuba -- where state trials are merely formalities for defendants. Between 2000 and 2005, our government lost but 1 percent of the time. Bonds may very well be guilty; but in a true democracy, a 99 percent successful conviction rate is more something to fear than to be proud of.

Bonds' blackness -- or perhaps the whiteness of some of his contemporaries -- adds to the idea that Bonds is a singular target and that race should be a factor in how people assess any situation in this country. If nothing else, asking oneself why Bonds evokes such anger and outward hatred could do much to answer that question. The answer likely lies in the mirror.

But here, race is just a frustrating tributary in this river, tangential to Bonds' choice to be flippant and -- prosecutors say -- to deceive them under oath. If race were truly central to Bonds, he wouldn't have been given the exact same immunity deal that Giambi received. And there is no evidence to date that suggests Bonds would be in his current state if he had not abused his immunity. Giambi is no longer a Hall of Fame candidate and much of his reputation has been destroyed, but he's not under indictment. He is not facing a jail sentence.

The difference with Bonds was his arrogant belief that his power could intimidate federal investigators, his decision to defy the government the way he defies a middle reliever. It is a power game; and against individuals who possess such staggering degrees of wealth, only the federal government -- with its resources, subpoena authority and moral muscle -- has the power to make them accountable. That miscalculation, more than any racial bias, is the root of Bonds' downfall. It is fitting, then, that the two most powerful moments during the steroids era -- the falls of the black Bonds and the white McGwire -- have come at the hands of the government. That the government demanded accountability and did not waver was his biggest surprise, because Bonds -- like the Martha Stewarts, McGwires and Enron executives of the world -- was just so used to laughing at everybody else.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.