BREATHE EASY, America. Two of the central players in the BALCO steroids scandal look like they're headed for the clink.
One weighs 170 pounds, including glasses, and couldn't bench-press the phone book. The other hasn't lifted a weight since high school.
The criminals? Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke open the story—Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.
The juicer athletes never had a chance against these guys. Their pit-bull reporting triggered a national wake-up call about steroid use that led to congressional hearings and, at long last, steroid testing in baseball.
Thanks to Fainaru-Wada and Williams, the authors of Game of Shadows, we learned the nasty truth about the web of steroid-using athletes and trainers spun by BALCO's mastermind, Victor Conte. Without their reporting the compelling evidence of Barry Bonds's steroid use might never have been revealed. Nor would we know that Jason Giambi and former 100-meter record holder Tim Montgomery had admitted their steroid use to a grand jury.
It's the best sports reporting in our lifetime, so impressive that in April 2005, when Fainaru-Wada and Williams met President Bush at a correspondents-dinner reception, he shook their hands and said, "You've done a service." And why wouldn't he? He said in his 2004 State of the Union address that this country must clean up steroids in pro sports, and Fainaru-Wada and Williams started scrubbing. But then Bush allowed his Attorney General to subpoena them to give up the source of grand jury testimony they'd reported or face jail time.
Hold on, hold on. I hear you yelping: Somebody violated a judge's gag order and leaked secret grand jury testimony, and the government is trying to find out who. Fainaru-Wada and Williams obviously know who it is but refuse to say. They must go directly to jail, not pass Go, etc.
No, they uncovered information that had been part of grand jury testimony, but it was then released to the BALCO defense team and the prosecution in the pretrial process, and it wasn't until 11 days later that the gag order was imposed.
Of course, Fainaru-Wada, 41, and Williams, 56, could simply roll on their source, but then no source would ever speak to them again. Already, Williams says, sources "have started double-clutching a little since we were subpoenaed."
The Hearst Corporation, which owns TV stations, magazines and 12 daily newspapers, including the Chronicle, has received 80 subpoenas of reporters over the last 18 months, compared with five over the previous 18. Meanwhile, Bush runs what is arguably the most secretive administration in history. He even signed an executive order designed to keep presidential papers secret beyond the usual 12-year wait.
Last week, Fainaru-Wada's nine-year-old son said to his father, "Dad, I don't want you to go to jail."
What could Fainaru-Wada say, except, "Sometimes you have to keep your promise no matter what."
So the men whom the President congratulated for their fine work may be going to the slammer for a year and a half for it. Not Bonds, who insisted that the "cream" was an "arthritic rub" and the "clear" was "flaxseed oil."
You want justice? If they are jailed all 18 months they will serve more than four times the sentence of anybody else in the scandal, including Conte, who did only four months.
And they may still be locked up next summer when Bonds—a man who, according to their reporting, may have committed tax fraud and lied to a grand jury—breaks Hank Aaron's home run record.
That, my fellow Americans, will be sickening. "If that happens," says Fainaru-Wada, biting his lip, "if we're sitting in jail when that happens, that won't be a moment I'll take well."
The deadline for Fainaru-Wada and Williams to file with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is Nov. 3. Should they lose there, another appeal stage comes after that, then the Supreme Court. At the same time, Senator Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) is trying to get a bill passed that would shield reporters (as 31 states do now) from having to reveal their sources, especially when—in the eyes of a judge—the public's right to know something takes precedence over the harm of concealing a source. Which is the case here, times 10. But the bill looks like it will die, mostly because of opposition from the White House. That figures.
These guys should be getting the Pulitzer, not the pen.
if you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to email@example.com.
The reporters whom the President congratulated for their fine work on the BALCO story may go to the slammer. You want justice? They should get the Pulitzer, not the pen.
RIFFS of REILLY
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PETER READ MILLER