King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Clemens vs. McNamee in Congress: It takes a while, but one committee member finally asks the right question: What are we doing?

By King Kaufman
Published February 14, 2008 10:00AM (EST)

It took three hours and 41 minutes, but somebody finally said something worthwhile at the House Oversight Committee hearing on drugs in baseball Wednesday.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., noted that he'd supported the committee's baseball hearings in 2005 because it has jurisdiction over drug policy, but then said, "I'm convinced that this hearing today is a shift away from questions about widespread use of steroids in baseball and instead focuses on alleged wrongdoing by individuals."

Those individuals sat in front of Westmoreland at the witness table. Roger Clemens, alleged in the Mitchell Report to have taken steroids and human growth hormone, sat a few feet away from his accuser and former personal trainer, Brian McNamee. Between them was Charles Scheeler, a partner in Mitchell's law firm who had worked on the report but who was mostly there so the two principals wouldn't have to sit next to each other.

Clemens spent about four and a half hours repeating his now-familiar denials, occasionally angrily. "No matter what we discuss here today, I am never going to have my name restored," he said in a sometimes heated opening statement. It was one of the few things he or anyone else said all day that was indisputably true.

In one of the toughest sequences of questioning late in the hearing, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., hammered Clemens with questions about why McNamee would lie about injecting Clemens with illegal drugs when Clemens' former teammates Chuck Knoblauch and Andy Pettitte had confirmed under oath that McNamee's similar statements about them were true.

Clemens went into a rambling answer about how he and Pettitte were close friends, and if Pettitte thought Clemens was an HGH user he would have discussed the matter with him when Pettitte used in 2002 and '04, all of which was beside the point.

"It's hard to believe you, sir," Cummings said. "I hate to say that. You're one of my heroes, but it's hard to believe you."

And it was hard to believe him. No members of the panel picked up on it, but Clemens spent the better part of the day contradicting himself about Pettitte. Pettitte said in his deposition that Clemens told him in 1999 or 2000 that he had used HGH and it helped him. Pettitte also said that when he, Pettitte, brought up the subject again in 2005, Clemens said Pettitte had misheard him, that he'd been talking about his wife, Debbie, using HGH. Pettitte said he was sure he hadn't misheard but didn't want to argue about it at the time.

Several representatives picked up on the inconsistency that Debbie Clemens' admitted use of HGH, which McNamee gave her, didn't happen until 2003. But what they missed was the contradiction in Roger Clemens' repeated statements about Pettitte not telling him he'd used HGH in 2002 and '04, which Pettitte admitted in his deposition. Clemens said Pettitte not consulting him showed that Clemens wasn't a user.

"My problem with what Andy said, and why I think he misremembers, is that if Andy Pettitte knew that I had used HGH or I had told Andy Pettitte that I had used HGH, before he would use the HGH, he would have come to me and asked me about it," Clemens said early in the day. "That's how close our relationship was." This was the point Clemens was trying to argue during the closing statement of committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who angrily gaveled him down.

But Pettitte did think Clemens was an HGH user -- mistakenly, Clemens says -- based on the 1999 or 2000 conversation.

Gotcha. Except: Why are we playing gotcha in Congress? In other words: What the gentleman from Georgia said.

A few minutes after Westmoreland spoke, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., had the floor.

"I am very concerned with the direction this committee has gone in the last year or so because I think we've been playing gotcha games and I don't agree with that," she said. "I think there are billions of dollars being wasted every minute by the federal government, and what this committee ought to be doing is doing government oversight. And we're not doing that. I am not a fan of holding these hearings on issues we have no business dealing with."

Foxx was clearly talking politics, not just baseball, and taking a shot at Waxman's leadership. And while various committee members defended the hearings, as they usually do, saying the committee oversees the nation's drug policy and therefore has an interest in knowing something about the types and extent of illegal drug use among influential professional athletes, it's quite a stretch to see how sorting out the he-said/he-said of Roger Clemens vs. Brian McNamee advances that cause.

Whether McNamee's specific statements about Clemens are true or not is, as one committee member pointed out, important to Clemens and McNamee, but not so important in the scheme of things. If Clemens were somehow proved pure as the new-mown infield grass, it wouldn't mean that baseball's drug problem were any less serious. If a video of him shooting HGH in his butt were to surface, it wouldn't mean baseball's drug problem were any worse.

If Clemens is guilty of a crime, let him stand trial in court, where there are standards of evidence and he has the right to face and cross-examine his accusers. If the House Oversight Committee is going to try to make policy to tackle the drug problem in sports, let it get down to business instead of grandstanding by acting as a kangaroo court.

"If we called everybody in sports that's ever been accused of doing steroids before this committee," Westmoreland said, "then we would shut this place down and hold nothing but hearings with nothing but athletes who have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. That's not our role in this process, and I certainly hope this show trial will teach us that very valuable lesson."

Don't bet on it, sir.

Previous column: "Rockstar Curling"

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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