If Clemens is smart, he’ll start cutting his losses

Published 11:49 am Saturday, August 21, 2010

Turns out some members of Congress didn’t believe Roger Clemens any more than the rest of us.

But what makes it a teachable moment is they did something about it. The lesson is that if you lie to enough people, eventually someone will take it personally. The drawback is that even if he winds up behind bars, it won’t change a thing.

Jim Litke

Clemens is like plenty of other larger-than-life athletes and celebrities. So accustomed to knocking people down, those lawmakers sitting elbow to elbow in a committee hearing room some 30 months ago looked like just another slap-hitting lineup to Clemens. And he was at least half-right.

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Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by current ranking member Darrell Issa of California, spent much of their energy and most of their allotted time that day mocking Clemens’ accuser and former personal trainer, Brian McNamee.

“Shame on you,” Issa said at the end of one contentious exchange — and that was soon after his colleague, Chris Shays of Connecticut, called McNamee a cheat, a liar and just for good measure “a drug dealer.”

So although Clemens isn’t the only one who said something regrettable that day, he’s the one who’s going to pay.

He faces up to five years in prison on each of six charges and a $1.5 million fine. His reputation is already shot, he rarely turns up in public, and he’s already transferred enough personal wealth to his country lawyer, Rusty Hardin, to have a set of chairs named after him at a law school.

Speaking of which: Whether Hardin was truly advising his client or just rubber-stamping Clemens’ hare-brained schemes, his legal strategy should become a case study.

In short order, Clemens broadcast a secretly recorded phone conversation with McNamee that made him sound like a mob enforcer, dared Congress to make a federal case out of it, and doubled down by insisting everybody else either “misheard” or “misremembered” what he said and did. Then they filed a defamation lawsuit, only to jog McNamee’s memory about a few syringes and bandages he’d stashed away with — he claims — Clemens’ DNA all over them.

Since things can only get worse for Clemens, and keeping in mind that Barry Bonds’ latest prosecution still looms, it’s worth asking how much more good money the feds should be throwing after the bad. If the goal is to rid sports of cheaters, it’s just not going to happen.

Clemens certainly took it to another level by lying to Congress. But as Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, another Republican member of the committee pointed out that day, “If we called everyone in sports accused of using steroids before this committee, we’d have to shut this place down. That’s not our role in this process, and I hope this show trial teaches us that very important lesson.”

Not entirely.

Unless Clemens gets smart and decides to cut his losses, there’s going to be another, even more expensive show trial, this time in federal court. Even if the government wins on every count, the public interest is hardly served by providing three squares and a scratchy new home uniform to a millionaire ballplayer.

What prosecutors should do instead is offer Clemens a plea deal he can’t resist, but make it prohibitively expensive. We came up with a proposal two weeks after his appearance before Congress, right around the time committee members called in the FBI to sort out the “he-said, he-said” testimony.

Let some government accountant come up with a spreadsheet breaking out how much of Clemens’ earnings can be tied to his use of performance-enhancers. Then double it, plow the money back into testing, research and a smart ad campaign against PED use, and include a few hundred hours of community service.

Clemens isn’t the first ballplayer to lie, nor will he be the last. But the most efficient way to get the truth out is turning him into a cautionary tale about how much cheaper it turns out to be sooner rather than later.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.