I recently started reading Game of Shadows and just got a chance to see the last episode of "Real Sports" on HBO where they covered the BALCO scandal. After so much news covering the issue, and HBO's controversy-laced journalism regarding the issue (at least in my opinion), I figured it was time for me to say what I thought about the scandal.
A Brief Recap of the BALCO Scandal
BALCO (short for Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) was a small nutrition company located in San Francisco that sold performance-enhancing supplements for athletes. Victor Conte, the company's founder, soon began accumulating popular clients such as Bill Romanowski, Tim Montgomery, Jason Giambi, and the most popular and certainly the athlete who garnered the most press, Barry Bonds. After many began to see that Bonds had bulked up considerably in the off-season between 1999 and 2000, speculation arose that Bonds had begun to take steroids. People had been suspicious of Bonds' connection with BALCO for a while, but no information a possible connection was made public.
In 2003, Congress conducted a grand jury investigation involving Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Bonds told the grand jury that he used steroids, including "The Cream" and "The Clear". San Francisco Chronicle writers Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada authored an article about what was said behind the closed doors of the testimony, and later went on to write the book Game of Shadows. Game of Shadows was a success, and it got the sports world talking about steroids once again. The book was so important, in fact, that President George W. Bush actually honored the writers at the 2005 White House Correspondents Dinner.
On May 5, 2006, Williams and Fainaru-Wada were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury about how they obtained Barry Bonds' leaked grand jury testimony. The writers, however, refused to reveal their source, saying that they had promised the source never to reveal his or her name. After repeated attempts to get them to talk and repeated refusals by the writers, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ordered Fainaru-Wada and Williams to comply with their subpoenas and testify. If they chose not to, they would have to face incarceration (likely for up to a year). The writers still refused to reveal their source.
The "Real Sports" Perspective
"Real Sports", of course, tried to create as much controversy over the BALCO/Williams/Fainaru-Wadu scandal as possible. The segment covering the issue on the show mentioned that Victor Conte - the founder of BALCO - struck a plea bargain with his prosecutors and only spent four months in jail. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and the other athletes who actually took the steroids provided by Conte, will likely spend no time in jail. However, (again, this is "Real Sports" talking here) Lance Williams and Mark Fairnaru-Wada could spend up to a year in jail - and they didn't commit a crime at all! That's three times as long as the actual steroid supplier!
The TV show also aired back-to-back clips of George W. Bush inviting Fainaru-Wada and Williams to the Correspondents Dinner, and the Bush-appointed District Judge Jeffrey White stating that if the writers didn't reveal their sources, they would be going to jail. How could Bush praise the writers at one point, and then send them to jail only a year later?!
First of all, keep in mind that Victor Conte struck a plea bargain to lower his sentence down to four months. There still is a chance that the sentence that Williams and Fainaru-Wada receive could be much less than a year if they strike a similar plea bargain.
Many people - including those at "Real Sports" - are worried that the fact that Williams and Fainaru-Wada could go to jail for not revealing their sources could be the end of investigative journalism altogether. After all, if the government can simply make writers reveal sources, why would anyone ever give an anonymous tip in the first place? Unfortunately, the fact remains that the law is the law. Lance Williams and Fainaru-Wada were ordered to reveal sources and, because they didn't and will not, they should go to jail. By not revealing their sources, they are committing a crime and, here, the law should not offer any "but if" cases.
It also makes no sense to compare the sentences of Victor Conte and the two writers. While it may initially look unfair that Williams and Fainaru-Wada will receive up to a year of jail time and Conte only received four months, Conte and the writers committed two completely different crimes. In the rules of the law, refusing to testify when faced with a grand jury may be worth more jail time than Conte's crime (I don't what the exact law is). However, one simply cannot compare Conte and the writers' lengths of incarceration.
I see no problem in the fact that George Bush invited the writers to the Correspondents Dinner and that Bush-appointed Judge Jeffrey White threatened to send them to jail for not revealing their sources. Bush and White were right to do what they did. George Bush praised the writers for their work because it was, in fact, amazing. Because of their work, the writers exposed a major steroid problem in sports today, and they deserved to be rewarded for it. However, they did so while violating the law, and as long as they revealed their sources, they would steer clear of jail. The writers refuse to reveal their sources, so they're the ones that are responsible for their imminent incarceration. Judge Jeffrey White is simply doing his job in enforcing the law.
However, that doesn't mean that the whole situation goes without any faults. The first question I had when I first heard that Congress was getting involved with BALCO and the steroids controversy is - why? Why is a governing body responsible for making laws for the United States - the most powerful country in the world - spending its time investigating something that's harming the sports industry (in other words, a portion of the entertainment industry)? This is something the commissioners of MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL should be taking care of, not the U.S. Congress. Obviously, this was difficult to foresee when Congress first got involved, but if the government stayed out of the BALCO scandal altogether, Fainaru-Wada and Williams would not be going to jail. The commissioners likely would be able to get authorities to send Conte to jail for creating designer drugs, and in the end, everyone would be happy.
The fact that there was a grand jury investigation involving professional athletes and that the testimonies were kept secret from the public also makes no sense. Sure, it makes sense to conduct private investigations where information can't be leaked when discussing issues of national security. After all, if the government has a chance to save thousands of lives by simply keeping some testomonies secret, why wouldn't they take up that opportunity? A case involving steroids, however, is not even close to an issue of national security. What does keeping the athletes' testimonies secret do other than protect them from negative publicity? Again, the situation with Fainaru-Wada and Williams going to jail could have been avoided very early.
In conclusion, many people strongly believe that the San Francisco Chronicle writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams should not go to jail for refusing to reveal the identity of the source from which they received the grand jury testimony, but these people fail to realize that their anger should simply be redirected to the fact that Congress should never have gotten involved in this steroids scandal in the first place. Now that Congress is involved, however, Fainaru-Wada and Williams have no choice but to obey the law. As investigative journalists, they stand strong on their decision to not reveal their source, so unfortunately they will have to pay the price.
EDIT: My opinion on this has changed somewhat after reading further in Game of Shadows and thinking more about the article I wrote. BALCO didn't supply steroids to just MLB and NFL athletes. The ring of users also included Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, and other Olympic athletes. In fact, BALCO's amount customers was so large that now, I think that it may have been a good idea for the government to interfere. The enormity of the scandal is bigger than what most people - including me - thought, and it seemed very much like a worldwide drug ring (similar to something you'd see with other illegal drugs like cocaine and marijuana). Because of how big of a deal this whole scandal was, it actually does make sense for the government to get involved.