Do Feds Seek Out Big Stars Over Small Fry?

By John Canzano
Updated: November 23, 2007

OREGON — A friend of mine sent me an e-mail this week. The subject line read: “Been sayin’ it for two years now.” And what he’s been saying is that high-profile athletes are more fun for federal investigators to hunt, bag and hold up as trophies.

He was writing about Barry Bonds. And Michael Vick. And Marion Jones. And right now, I’m thinking the argument is being validated, one indictment at a time.

If those three athletes broke rules, punish them. If they broke laws, put them in jail. If they broke tenets of basic human decency, lock them up and castigate them.

You’ll get no argument here.

But while we’re at it, don’t you think federal investigators and grand juries should be doing something more to stop the distribution and use of steroids and dogfighting among non-superstar athletes?

I challenge you to examine the cases of Bonds, Vick and Jones and the passion with which each was chased by the federal government, and ask yourself if that same prolonged energy, and the same intense resources, and the same valuable grand jury time, is being dedicated to lower-profile targets.

Then, ask yourself if this has to do with skin color, or celebrity, or some combination of both. Or if the pattern here is as random and indiscriminate as it should be when it comes to Lady Justice, who as far as we know, still is wearing that blindfold and holding the scales of justice.

Why isn’t Mark McGwire, who can’t seem to answer when you ask him about steroids under oath, the subject of a special grand jury session? How about admitted abuser Jason Giambi? And Rafael Palmeiro? And did Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig make false statements when he testified that baseball was clueless to the obvious performance-enhancing drug epidemic that went down during his tenure?

Where are the indictments for the nameless, faceless citizens who stage brutal and disturbing dogfights before and after Vick came and went? Where are the deep-pocketed federal resources for the investigation and prosecution of suppliers and distributors of street-level steroids that still are finding their way into high schools, colleges and local gymnasiums?

Double standard, anyone?

I’m not defending Bonds, or Vick, or Jones. How could you? Vick pleaded guilty to charges involving dogfighting. Jones admitted she used steroids and lied to investigators. And Bonds was given felony indictments of perjury and obstruction of justice.

They’re getting what they deserve, I suppose.

But I insisted early on, maybe naively so, that we were witnessing justice at work, and that our federal government was doing the right thing by pursuing and punishing criminal behavior. And now, I’m looking around, seeing these three standing alone, being paraded and trumpeted like prized catches, and wondering if making a big splash was the sole aim all along.

Until dogfighting is wiped out nationwide, we have to wonder if Vick would have been targeted with such spirit if he, say, owned a small business instead of being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. And until performance-enhancing drugs become less available to citizens, we have to wonder if Jones got prosecuted simply because she could run fast.

And we have to wonder if Bonds — who gave up long ago wanting to be loved by the public — would have been the subject of such a driven and prolonged investigation had he not hit so many home runs.

Maybe a flood of federal funding to eliminate crimes involving steroids and dogfighting is coming. Maybe someone’s going to call a news conference and announce that a passionate federal investigation has broken up a major dogfighting or steroid ring somewhere in the U.S. not involving a professional athlete. Maybe Bonds, and Vick, and Jones were just the first three Americans to be singled out by federal investigations.

Until then, let’s call all this what it really is.

A start.