Mitchell report revisited

We’re a few days removed from the release of the Mitchell report. The vast amount of coverage it has received means that trying to get a sense of perspective is difficult. Everyone seems to have an agenda they are trying to pursue.

The report has polarised opinion, with some dismissing its findings as mere hearsay and some treating it as gospel. The reaction of two players named in the report shows how the issue is not nearly so black and white.

Andy Pettitte has admitted the comments about him taking HGH and Brian Roberts has also admitted trying steroids. They are interesting cases. Pettitte’s confession naturally puts the focus even more tightly on his good friend Roger Clemens while Roberts’ confession puts the focus on ESPN’s Jayson Stark. In his damning indictment of the report, Stark highlighted Roberts as being a prime case where Mitchell had no right to name the player. It will be interesting to read Stark’s thoughts now that Roberts has admitted his guilt.

It should also be noted that both Pettitte and Roberts have been quick to stress that they only briefly dabbled with PEDs (Pettite took HGH twice, while Roberts tried steroids once). If we take this at face value, how do we judge them? Can we draw a distinction between someone who made a “mistake” and quickly stopped, and someone who used PEDs on a more regular basis? Should anyone who so much as injects himself once be blacklisted as a “cheater” for ever more? Ask one hundred people and I’m sure you will get a wide variety of responses.

There are two key issues with the final report: 1) it’s far from comprehensive in terms of who may have used PEDs, and 2) most of the evidence is circumstantial at best. Anyone could have predicted these two issues would arise as soon as the Mitchell investigation was launched. MLB’s moral high ground may be dubious, but let’s not forget that distributing and obtaining PEDS was and is illegal. By their very nature, the audit trails of illegal activities are not easy to uncover.

PEDS, like any drugs, are generally distributed via networks, with a key contact and then lots of “people who know people” that make up the spider’s web. In any such investigation, your major hope is that you can infiltrate or crack one of these networks (or “rings”) and then trace your way down every avenue as far as possible. Sometimes this leads you to another network, sometimes not. Mitchell’s report predominantly draws its evidence from the Kirk Radmonski network discovered by a separate criminal investigation (which in itself begs the question “what would Mitchell have done without this breakthrough?”). What you see in the report therefore largely tells you who was linked to this network (alongside a few other cases). It is not a definitive list because producing one would be impossible: you’re not going to gain knowledge of every network. Of course, the problem with publishing a partial list is that the credibility of the exercise goes down the plughole. We all know that just because player “x” wasn’t in the report, that doesn’t mean player “x” hasn’t taken PEDs, it just means it wasn’t uncovered by the investigation. But the consequence of this is that anyone not named in the report can still be under suspicion.

Many people have criticised the circumstantial evidence that the report is based on, but isn’t that the sort of information you would expect to find in an investigation like this? You’re not going to find a receipt in Roger Clemens’ house with “1 X HGH kit” written on it. You’re not going to find a smoking gun (or a blood-stained needle) on his property, if one ever existed. In Clemens’ case, what you do have is a testimony from a former Yankees trainer, Brian McNamee, that he injected Clemens with steroids and HGH on several occasions. Considering the potential legal consequences that McNamee will face if he has lied, that’s quite compelling evidence. Is it enough to convict someone in a court of law? Certainly not (not on its own at least). So there’s a very valid argument that publishing it was wrong, but then again that doesn’t necessarily make the information untrue. Pettitte and Roberts have showed that this type of testimony can be based on facts. We cannot say that Clemens took PEDs and we cannot say that he didn’t. That’s the real outcome and in the general scheme of things it’s not very helpful.

Put it all together and we are left with a report that doesn’t conclusively prove that any of the people listed have actually used PEDs and doesn’t exonerate anyone who isn’t in the report either.

Well worth the $20m+, don’t you agree?

Beyond the section where player after player is named and shamed, there are some very valid recommendations in the report that deserve attention. The names only serve to cloud the issue, yet could the report have been published without them? I think we have to go back to the catalyst for this investigation. It has effectively been a PR exercise from the start, prompted by various scandals and the attention of Congress. MLB needed to be seen to be doing something by airing some of its dirty linen in public, putting a few scapegoats in the public firing line, and then moving on while being able to claim they had dealt with the past. In that context, producing a report without including names would have failed to quench the thirst for blood and the investigation would have been labelled as a cover up.

Which is a a real shame, because MLB would have benefited greatly from a focused investigation into the use of PEDs in baseball. Answering in detail the whys, wheres and hows would have helped to inform MLB’s future policy on tackling the issue. Sadly, I don’t believe that this is going to be the legacy of the Mitchell report.

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