Sunday, February 17, 2008

You would have thought Congress was about to hear from a top al Qaeda operative or maybe a mafia kingpin, what with all the accusatory statements and self-righteous indignation being flaunted by members of Congress. But no, an august congressional committee was gathered together to waste the taxpayers’ time and money interrogating a baseball player, seven-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens.

And for what? For allegedly using hormones to enhance his performance on the field. I’m sorry, I just can’t get my dander up on this one.

I may not be a sports fanatic, but I do admire the tremendous skill and dedication players like Mr. Clemens display year in and year out. Our top athletes have always wanted to achieve at the highest levels and have been willing to do whatever possible to get there.

Then, along came substances that professional athletes knew would improve their performance and are used legally in other contexts. Sure, the drugs — steroids, human growth hormone and whatever else drug companies can whip up that make muscles grow stronger and more quickly — have some pretty nasty side-effects that may endanger the health of those who choose to take them. But shouldn’t this be the individual’s choice?

There are serious risks to using steroids and human growth hormones, but to treat these drugs as if they were equivalent to cocaine or other illegal substances is terribly misguided. Doctors prescribe steroids and HGH every day because the drugs have important uses in speeding recovery from certain injuries and in treating inflammation, asthma, delayed onset of puberty, body wasting in AIDS patients, even low sex drive in post-menopausal women. Cocaine, heroin, psychedelics and other illegal drugs have no such benefits.

As employers, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and other sports associations have the right to set up rules that forbid the use of performance-enhancing drugs by their players. If the owners want to test their players and prohibit those who use certain drugs from playing, fine. Let them penalize those who break the rules, even kick them out of the game.

But, that does not mean Congress or the executive branch should try to turn this into a public policy issue, much less a crime. It was ridiculous for President Bush to include steroid use by professional athletes as one of his priority concerns in his 2004 State of the Union address and even more outrageous for Congress to hold hearings on the subject.

The sheer hypocrisy is staggering. We are a drug- and performance enhancing-obsessed culture. Americans spend billions a year on drugs to make us look better and perform stronger. I wonder how many members of Congress have taken Viagra or had Botox injections — and the latter, which is a form of botulinum, one of the most deadly toxins on earth, has now been linked to several deaths. Yet these politicians want to criminalize the behavior of athletes who do roughly the equivalent. Is America really a better country because Marion Jones is in jail and Barry Bonds may be headed there?

I don’t know if Roger Clemens was entirely truthful at this week’s hearings. But I strenuously object to my taxpayer dollars being used by Congress to grill him under oath. And I will be outraged if one penny is spent trying to prove he perjured himself. We have better things to do with our limited resources, and Congress certainly has more important issues to deal with. No wonder Congress is held in such low esteem by Americans, with barely over 20 percent approval ratings.

We are a nation at war. We have a Social Security and Medicare crisis looming. We have a tax system that rewards borrowing instead of saving or investing. Our education system is failing, despite exponential growth in federal funding over the last several decades. We have an immigration system that stifles economic growth and encourages lawlessness. These are the issues Americans want addressed, not more investigations into whether athletes are using performance enhancing drugs.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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