Was Barry Bonds targeted?

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Of all the bulked-up major league baseball players suspected of using steroids in the mid-to-late 1990s, how is it that Barry Bonds, baseball’s pre-eminent Black player, came to be Target No. 1 of federal investigators? Is Bonds really the fraud he is made out to be by the steady leaks of grand jury records? Or is he instead only the latest in a long line of Black athletes in American history wrongfully targeted for destruction by zealous government officials determined to put them in their place?

The Bonds probe began in 2000 in an almost innocuous fashion. That was the year a federal investigator named Jeff Novitzky, a former basketball player at San Jose State University described as a “failed athlete” by an attorney for Bonds’ trainer, expressed wonder and not a small degree of suspicion over Bonds’ amazing size and strength, as he watched the Black star working out at a Burlingame, Calif., gym.

“Do you think he’s on steroids?” Novitzky reportedly asked a state agent one day, who also exercised at the gym. “I think they’re all on steroids,” the agent told him. “All of our top major leaguers.” But it was Bonds, the incredibly buff, defiant and immensely rich Black athlete, who most riveted Novitzky’s attention. According to an article by Jonathan Littman in an April 2004 issue of Playboy magazine, Novitzky, referring to Bonds’ alleged steroid use, replied, “I’d sure like to prove it.”

Thus began the 18-month BALCO investigation. [BALCO is the laboratory charged with selling steroids to athletes.] But where federal prosecutors have thus far failed in the quest to “prove it” in a court of law, authoritative insiders have certainly more than compensated by an unusually robust performance in the court of public opinion. Far more than a mere leak, anonymous courthouse sources have delivered journalists a veritable cascade of information, much of it providing circumstantial evidence deeply damaging to Bonds’ reputation in everything from his hitting records to his marital fidelity.

So did race play a significant role in the origins and orchestration of the Bonds investigation? It’s difficult to conclude. But it’s not difficult to see what prosecutors did not choose to do in 1998, two years before the Bonds probe began, when bulked-up white slugger Mark McGwire captured the public’s imagination by breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record in almost supernatural fashion. No probe was ever launched of McGwire or the plentiful other major leaguers whose oversized physiques helped translate into greatly-inflated statistics and lucrative contracts long before Bonds allegedly starting using the drugs. In fact, investigative writer Jonathan Littman specifically pointed to racism as the driving force behind the BALCO investigation. McGwire “essentially gets a free pass,” the journalist told Knight Ridder in 2004. “He’s not under near the scrutiny as [Bonds].”

Why?

“Because, I think, Mr. McGwire is a white guy.” In a larger sense, the Bonds controversy echoes the long and frequently disturbing history of the American government’s actions toward successful Black athletes and Black entertainers who, when viewed as a threat to mainstream white attitudes, have frequently been targeted for prosecution or other means of banishment. Jack Johnson aroused such venomous white hatred during his reign as heavyweight-boxing champion from 1910-1915 — both inside the ring, where he defeated one “Great White Hope” after another, and outside, where he dared to flaunt his relationships with white women — that federal prosecutors went after him with an almost evangelical zeal. The authorities finally charged and convicted him of trumped-up violations of the Mann Act, which prohibited interstate trafficking in prostitution. Johnson’s boxing career was destroyed.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, singer, athlete and actor Paul Robeson was widely admired as one of America’s finest entertainers. But when Robeson publicly protested racism and inequality in his native land, and committed the unpardonable sin of speaking favorably about communism during the Cold War, the U.S. government reacted swiftly by revoking his passport in 1950. Unable to travel overseas, and blacklisted in the United States, Robeson’s career never recovered. And it was in 1967, after he aroused government fury at the height of the Vietnam War by refusing military induction on religious grounds, that boxer Muhammad Ali was charged with draft evasion. Boxing authorities stripped him of his heavyweight title and his license to fight, thus depriving him of three years of his livelihood at the crest of his physical prowess.

Bonds is not anything like those storied figures in the most fundamental ways. He certainly never had to scrape his way up from grinding poverty, nor had to overcome hardcore segregation, as did Johnson. Neither does Bonds possess the sterling character, deep political conscience and worldwide respect that Robeson commanded. And it is certainly true that Bonds has never made a single political stand as brave or unpopular as Ali’s. To equate Bonds to such courageous men on those scores is certainly to cheat the latter. But two things Bonds certainly does share with those men are the color of his skin and a supreme ability in his chosen field.

In each case, too, government officials set out specifically to get the outsized Black figure, to “prove” his criminality, and to counter his threat to the established order, in court and in public opinion. As in 1910, 1950 and 1967, race in Bonds’ age remains a powerful determinant in American society. Then, as now, few figures in our national consciousness provoke as much public controversy as the gifted, arrogant and rich Black athlete — especially one who threatens our most cherished national myths. Now as spring arrives, as baseball returns, and as Bonds resumes his assault on Babe Ruth’s and Hank Aaron’s career home-run records, it might help to consider that history as we regard the decidedly mixed torrent of boos and cheers that the Black slugger will once again elicit around America.

Bonds may not be Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson or Muhammad Ali. But in light of the egregious treatment of those great men at the hands of the U.S. government, I cannot help suspecting that Bonds’ supreme competitiveness and excellence, like theirs, set him on a collision course with authorities deeply intent on putting him in his place, one way or another. And in the exciting weeks and months ahead, no matter whether it ends in failure or triumph, Bonds’ electrifying quest on the field for the Giants will prove just as evocative of America’s anguished, continuing and complex racial history.

Neil Henry teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted by permission of the author.