Inside a paneled room with purple curtains and rows of politicians from red and blue America, Don Hooton would tilt his head or sip water and hear the rapid fire of camera shutters providing a cicada soundtrack inside the packed House Oversight Committee hearing. It was March 17, 2005. A good day for suck-ups in suits.
Everyone in Washington, D.C., wanted to be in a picture with Hooton, to be in the reflective circle of his story: Twenty months earlier, Hooton's 17-year-old son, Taylor, had hanged himself from his bedroom door. He had stopped taking steroids and fallen into a deep depression.
At the hearings, Congress had summoned Major League Baseball's biggest and bulkiest. Among them, there was Jose Canseco, the town crier; Mark McGwire, the whiner and Rafael Palmeiro, the liar. Also that day came Hooton, the galvanizer. He provided politicians all the cover they needed to blast baseball's drug testing. Three days later, on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Senator John McCain praised his House colleagues' anger, saying, "That's why I thought it was very helpful to have the families of those young high schoolers who had committed suicide, gripping and tragic."
The grip has since slipped inside the Beltway's Short Attention Span Theater. What happened to the political 'roid rage? The bandwagon has been garaged for several reasons, some obvious, some ominous. We'll get to that, but first understand this: D.C. is about staging rage. Three months ago, amid some mild media attention, Hooton sent a letter on behalf of the Taylor Hooton Foundation to each member of the House and Senate, taking the federal government to task for "grandstanding" at the hearing and doing "absolutely nothing" to educate youth on performance-enhancing drugs, despite increased usage. More than 500 licked envelopes. And it was spit in the wind.
As of this week, Hooton had not received one reply from a member of Congress. Donut. This is not a government shutdown. It's a mass shutout. "Most of all, I'm really pissed," Hooton said.
What happened to the public cries for fairness? What happened to the save-the-child rhetoric? Steroid fatigue is one answer, but we pin chronic sports fatigue on every target -- from concussion debates to pay-for-play discussions to Manning Family-itis -- as a way to dismiss anything perceived to be past due. We like new. We like kittens on YouTube, puppies on Vine and Yasiel Puig on third.
But there is more to the vanishing steroid debate than wear and tear. It's far more manipulative than that. Who does sleight-of-hand better than politicians? "I don't think this administration has the same vigor as the previous administrations on the [PED] issue," said Dr. Gary Wadler, a former leader of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who is an associate professor of medicine at the Hofstra School of Medicine. "That was clear from the beginning when Barack Obama was running for election [in 2008]."
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In the go-go days of the criminal steroid chase, with the caped Jeff Novitzky leading the way as the federal-agent crusader -- from the BALCO raid in 2003 to Marion Jones' prison sentence for perjury in early 2008 -- President George W. Bush called out leagues to rid sports of steroids in his 2004 State of the Union Address. He was mocked -- when wasn't he? -- but W put the hammer down on his old baseball pals.
Three years later, enter a lawyer named Eric Holder, pal of Obama, buddy with the pros. Within months, Obama would end up being the fanatic-in-chief inside the White House man cave. But in 2007, Holder presided over several meetings of league and Olympic officials and anti-doping experts to discuss a way forward on the scourge of steroids. Holder wasn't just any lawyer. He was a partner at Covington & Burling, a powerful ally to the NFL as its law firm of choice. "I remember Holder reflected the attitudes of the leagues and had no appetite to hold steroid users accountable through law enforcement," said one executive who attended the sessions. "Protect the player privacy, protect the league image. That was the outcome."
Holder would become the U.S. Attorney General in 2009, appointed by President-elect Obama, who, in October of 2008, told ESPN, "I gotta admit that seeing a lot of congressional hearings around steroid use is not probably the best use of congressional time." A few sound bites later, Obama then contradicted that hands-off-sports political promise by saying, "I would have my attorney general investigate the possibility of instituting a college football playoff system through executive order. I'm tired of this nonsense at the end of every college football season."
No president has hosted more teams and athletes at the White House than Obama, a sports trivia aficionado and annual NCAA bracket-builder. He keeps company with star athletes, including those who have been caught amid the crossfire of doping scandals and personal falls. He has yelled "fore!" with Tiger Woods, who, in a twist from his life with the Vegas ladies, found himself in a different black book. Woods was a client of Canadian doctor Anthony Galea, who was convicted of bringing misbranded drugs into the U.S. and suspected of providing HGH (human growth hormone) to star athletes. Woods has maintained that he has never taken performance-enhancing drugs.
Do Obama's adoration of athletes and Holder's NFL ties trickle down to boots-on-the-ground enforcement? "Blatantly? No," said one attorney who has been involved with athlete steroid cases. "But nothing is blatantly obvious." Two people who have knowledge of the high-profile cases involving federal investigators see a top-down resistance to chasing athlete offenders. They point to the Lance Armstrong criminal case as an example. On Feb. 3, 2012, the Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl, when media attention was diverted, Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, an Obama nominee, ended the Armstrong investigation abruptly and without explanation. Eight months later, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released its reasoned decision on Armstrong with a volume of evidence viewed as criminal in terms of trafficking and distribution. Birotte refused to re-open the case. He apparently took an oath of stubborn.
In a separate federal case, this one involving Galea, Major League Baseball officials are seeking to unseal the grand jury testimony of Alex Rodriguez, wanting information about his relationship with the Canadian doctor. Why do they care so much? Major League Baseball is in the middle of a tense hearing -- including a rumble between lawyers, according to the New York Daily News -- before arbitrator Fredric Horowitz. He will decide if the 211-game ban handed down by baseball to Rodriguez for repeated drug-policy violations involving a Miami-based anti-aging clinic will stand or be reduced. The evidence from Biogenesis operator Anthony Bosch is said to be overwhelming; some of it is likely comical. According to one source with knowledge of A-Rod's relationship with Bosch, A-Rod sent text messages warning Bosch not to write about "meds" in texts. Brilliant.
The Galea case files may give MLB more ammunition to uphold the ban or even increase it. Although USADA never received an ounce of help from the feds in its pursuit of Armstrong -- not even benign documents were shared by Birotte's office -- baseball has a better shot. A source with knowledge of the Galea case said, "The only good thing going for baseball is that the request is not in the hands of a U.S. Attorney but in the hands of the judge in Buffalo." On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara heard arguments in baseball's motion to unseal records involving Rodriguez. A timeline for Arcara's decision is unknown. If baseball is successful, the source with knowledge of the case says it would be hard to believe that "the judge would not at least allow some access to information or allow Horowitz to view it."
What does any of this have to do with the NFL? In those sealed Galea files, there are believed to be the names of more than a half dozen NFL players who were either questioned or subpoenaed by the feds. Jamal Lewis and Takeo Spikes are known to have been Galea patients, but who else? MLB isn't trying to dish on the NFL -- they are only seeking Rodriguez's testimony -- but, if A-Rod is true to form, he likely threw an athlete pal or two under the bus in his statements. Let's say the Galea case is a closet door that the NFL doesn't want to open. The NBA is fine leaving it shut, too.
The odd-man out of the commissioner cabal is Selig. What's with Bud? "Baseball was taken to the woodshed in those hearings and didn't want to go back," said Wadler. "I've been a critic of baseball but you have to give credit where credit is due. Whether it's because Bud Selig didn't want steroids to be his legacy, I don't know. It doesn't matter. Baseball is doing the right thing."
As anyone who can spell HGH knows, testing is always behind the dopers. The only way to root them out is to dumpster dive in places such as Biogenesis. Baseball is willing to dig. "Outside of baseball, there has been silence," said USADA's CEO Travis Tygart. "It makes it easy for fans to feed into the who-cares way of thinking when they don't see any outrage or action by leaders. And yet they would hate it if their team lost because someone else had an unfair advantage. I think too often the link between doping and an unfair gain is not made. There is a disconnect."
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Political will is a fickle beast that stomps in sync with shock value. In 2005, Canseco released his tell-all book, "Juiced," and pulled the curtain off the steroid era by detailing syringe tales and naming names. Then, it was ho-hum. "The high-profile athletes have been outed," said Wadler, "and there is a sense that everyone is tired of the issue."
The PED perp walk has become monotonous over the years: Big star gets caught, big star gets suspended, big star returns to earn the balances of millions. As surveys reflect, young athletes do the math: If A-Rod has $325 million in career salary and takes a suspension worth another $25 million next year, how much does he have left? The same amount of sick money he started this whole thing with. Score one for steroids in the mind of a teenager. "They don't see the repercussions," said Hooton.
There is no doubt that the government's failed attempt to catch an ace, Roger Clemens, for perjury turned off the masses, as well. Not since 2007, when Marion Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about her steroid use, has a high-profile athlete gone to prison. Convicted of obstruction of justice, Barry Bonds has just asked a court to start his 30-day house arrest. What digs will be his gilded cage? A few months ago, he listed his Beverly Hills home for $25 million. A Tuscan wonderland, the cozy mansion was pictured with more than 30 rooms -- including maid's quarters and a movie theater. Snaps.
If this were where Barry does time, he would never have to spend the day in the same room twice. What's the downside, again? So far, former users such as the '80s hot duo in Oakland, The Bash Brothers, seem healthy. No one looks ravaged by steroids, although the physical and psychological consequences can be grave. "We don't even know what we'll find in the years to come," said Hooton.
Kids don't wait for dangerous data to emerge. Research shows an increase in PED use among children from middle school to high school, ballooning from 500,000 in 2005 to 1.5 million today. According to a recent Zogby poll by Digital Citizens Alliance, more than eight percent of males ages 18 to 25 have used anabolic steroids and almost 28 percent report knowing someone who has used appearance-enhancing drugs such as HGH or steroids.
One in five males told researchers that taking PEDs were the only way to achieve a pro sports career. And more than 77 percent of parents of males 14 to 25 said the use of performance-enhancing drugs in pro sports puts pressure on youths to do the same. Those numbers in the Digital Citizens Alliance poll reflect the University of Minnesota study last year, which concluded that five to six percent of middle school- and high school-age students use anabolic steroids to either enhance performance or appearance.
"Most surprising to most adults is the fact that the usage rate among girls now approaches that of the boys," said Hooton. "Girls tell us that they are looking for that lean 'six-pack' look and are injecting themselves with steroids like the veterinary steroid Winstrol to 'cut' their muscle. … Since market studies continue to show how powerful pro athletes' behavior is on kids, it makes sense punishment needs to be stronger to send a signal to kids that doping doesn't pay."
Who will shout that out? The current political apathy is a far cry from the outcry on March 17, 2005. "I recall virtually every Congressman that day, for the rest of the day, referring to 'the kids,' and that they were the ones being hurt by the use of drugs by the professional athletes, by the poor example that their role models had displayed by using drugs," said Hooton, adding in an e-mail response: "That was a direct reaction to our testimony. The stories of Taylor Hooton and Rob Garibaldi (who killed himself in a steroid-related suicide at age 24) changed the tone of those hearings. I honestly thought they would be moved actually to do something about the problem. Oh, how wrong I was."
Why does Hooton continue to challenge the political inertia? He thinks of Taylor, of turning pain into purpose, while beating a drum on a topic that others are tired of hearing about: steroids in the hands of children. He lives with that issue every day, unable and unwilling to turn it off.
"These guys and gals took the opportunity that day [in 2005], with all the press and TV cameras paying attention, to strut themselves in front of America," said Hooton. "It was a mass beating with each and every Congressman trying to say something more critical of MLB and the players than the speakers before them. But what did any of them do about the problem? Nothing, absolutely nothing. I feel used."
Another prop in America's political stagecraft.