The Investigator: George J. Mitchell '54

by Scott W. Hood

George Mitchell is no stranger to high-profile investigations. The former federal judge and member of the Bowdoin Class of 1954 rose to national prominence in 1987 as a United States Senator when he faced Marine Colonel Oliver North during the highly-charged Senate Iran-Contra hearings, famously reminding North that "God doesn't take sides in American politics."

After leaving the Senate, Mitchell would be tapped in December 1998 to lead an investigation into a bribery scandal surrounding the Salt Lake City Olympics. He was also the first choice to co-chair the 9/11 Commission investigation, a position he declined.

An avid sports fan and a director of the Boston Red Sox, Mitchell agreed in March 2006 to a request by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, to investigate widespread allegations that baseball players had illegally used steroids and other performance enhancing substances. Nearly twenty-one months later, on December 13, 2007, Mitchell released his 409-page report, prompting a media hoopla that refuses to die. The report details a history of drug use in baseball, assesses Major League Baseball's drug policies, and provides recommendations for ways in which baseball can move forward to prevent future drug use. But the report also names names - eighty-six names, including seven MVPs and thirty-one All-Stars.

Bowdoin Vice President for Communications & Public Affairs Scott Hood talked with Mitchell about the lessons of his investigation, the prevalence of steroid use in American society, and why he agreed to conduct a very public investigation into the sport he loves.

BOWDOIN: Why did you agree to conduct this controversial investigation?

MITCHELL: I like baseball, and I thought that I could perform a service. I recognized that it would be extremely difficult because I knew, of course, that I did not have any power to compel cooperation in either the form of people talking to me or providing me with documents or other evidence. It was very a long and difficult undertaking.

BOWDOIN: More so than it seemed at the outset?

MITCHELL: Yes, it took longer than I had anticipated. What happened generally was that we started in the late spring and early summer of 2006, and we did not receive any cooperation from the Players Association or the players. So we began with club officials - that is, employees of the major league teams who were required by virtue of their employment to cooperate. We interviewed hundreds of people, and while many of them were required to cooperate in the sense that they talked to us, many of them did not provide any information. It was quite common for people to say, "I've never heard of steroids. I've never had a discussion about it. I don't know anything about it."

Gradually, we began to amass a large amount of information, notwithstanding the restraints on us - in large part because in parallel with what I've just described - we contacted hundreds of people who had formerly been involved with baseball...former players, former trainers, former coaches...and not surprisingly, many of them were willing, even eager to talk. And so, although the majority of them wouldn't talk to us, many did. For example, we approached about five hundred former players. About 70 talked to us, but from those players we got a lot of information. And so gradually we developed a critical mass of information and had a pretty good sense of what had gone on.

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There was, of course, a lot of reporting on it. I don't know how many books I have read - six or seven books, at least, on the subject, hundreds and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles - so there was quite a body of information that had never been assembled into a single entity before, and we reviewed all of that. But we certainly didn't have everything. We never got everything. There was a lot we didn't find out. We then had the cooperation of some witnesses who provided us with a large number of names of both current and former players and we then brought it to a close as you saw.

The point I emphasize is that I believe we developed enough information to accurately describe what has come to be known as the steroids era of baseball. But I acknowledge and even emphasize that we obviously didn't learn every relevant fact, didn't learn the name of every distributor, didn't learn the name of every player who used illegal performance enhancing substances. I felt strongly that we had done the job we were asked to do: to look into the past and provide a report on it that was thorough, accurate and fair. But what I tried to do in the report and in my presentation of it was to focus on the future.

As I have said, baseball can't afford and doesn't need a never-ending search for the name of every player who ever used a substance. What they need is action now between the clubs and the players to bring this era to a close and to prevent it from recurring in some other form in the future. So I tried to place emphasis on the recommendations and take attention from the past, but unfortunately, as you can see, that hasn't occurred, although I think it will move in that direction now. The clubs and the players, I understand, are meeting. They're talking about what to do about implementing the recommendations I've made, and to me that will be the most meaningful result: the adoption of recommendations that will significantly reduce the use of these substances.

The one point I always mention when asked about this - because it really doesn't get the attention it deserves - is the alarming reality that hundreds of thousands of high school-age Americans use steroids and human growth hormone and other such drugs. Hundreds of thousands! The best estimates range from two percent to six percent, which sounds small but even the lowest number means several hundred thousand high school aged people in this country are doing this with potentially devastating consequences. And that, I think, is why we've got to raise public attention to this: to get parents and other authority figures dealing with youngsters - to be alert and active in discouraging and hopefully preventing the use of such substances by young people.

BOWDOIN: On that point, this is clearly not a problem limited strictly to athletes and athletics. There have been allegations of steroid use among rap stars, movie stars...

MITCHELL: Absolutely not. That is a very important point, and it is a hugely misunderstood point. It goes far beyond sports. Although the numbers are small, in percentage terms, use among young girls is increasing more rapidly than in any other youth group. It's got nothing to do, in most cases, with sports. You just saw recently that the wife of a famous baseball player was injected. That had nothing to do with sports. It had to do with looking good. A lot of the youngsters who use these substances, boys and girls, are not involved with sports. They think doing so will make them look good and be more attractive and more outgoing and so forth. It's a problem that goes far beyond sports, certainly far beyond baseball. People say that baseball players are role models. Yes, they are, but they are not the only role models in society. As you pointed out, entertainers, rap stars, a whole bunch of other people, politicians (some)... people look up to.

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It's a very dangerous thing and the most risky thing particularly is that teenage human beings are already subject to severe hormonal changes and therefore are physically and psychologically far more vulnerable than mature adults to the adverse effects of these drugs, and that's the real danger. They are picking the moment in life when they are most vulnerable and injecting themselves with these things that really could cause very severe physical and psychological damage.

BOWDOIN: So your work is one part dealing with a problem in baseball, another part raising awareness elsewhere?

MITCHELL: Yes, and I think it has. Certainly in baseball. I think you will see - if for no reason other than all this publicity - some decline. It's important that it not be just temporary and that an agreement is reached between the clubs and the players to take stronger action and most importantly that there be a continuing effort to deal with it.

The critical fact, which must be understood, is that this problem is dynamic. At this very moment, all around the world, we know that in China, Mexico, the United States, and Eastern Europe there are people working to devise drugs that will produce these perceived benefits but be undetectable in tests. So every time you figure out how to test for one drug, you're going to have a new illegal drug on the market. So you can never have a static program and say, "This is it- we've solved it once and for all." You're going to have to have a constant adaptation and an arms race of sorts between those engaged in illegal activities and those trying to detect and interdict that illegal activity.

BOWDOIN: In your report, you urged the Commissioner of Major League Baseball to forgo discipline unless it was necessary to maintain the integrity of baseball. Some might ask if there is any integrity left in the sport if players aren't disciplined for this behavior. Why shouldn't they be disciplined?

MITCHELL: There are many reasons. First, the actions described in my report occurred well in the past, some as many as nine years ago at a time when the rules of baseball were constantly changing. For example, until 2005, there was no established penalty for first use. It's an established principle of American law that if you punish someone for an action that occurred at a previous time, the punishment must be in accordance with the law that existed at the time the act occurred, not the time that you are inflicting the punishment.

Secondly, about half of the players mentioned in my report are no longer involved in Major League Baseball and, as such, they are not members of the Players Association and are not subject to the authority of the Commissioner. He couldn't impose a penalty on a retired player even if he wanted to.

Thirdly, you can't concentrate on the future if you're focused on the past. That's the most important point. At some point you have to turn the page and look to the future. I recognize that there are valid arguments to the contrary, but I think when you analyze it as a whole, considering the factors that I have just described, it just makes the most sense. I made very clear that I was not recommending a uniform policy of "no discipline" but rather leaving the Commissioner with the authority to determine when discipline should be applied in specific cases that are serious. I think that is the best way to do it. It's not an amnesty because it doesn't apply to everybody, and it's not general - it has to be on a case-by-case basis but I think it helps to move the process forward.

“No individual is perfect. No society is perfect. But I think most people want sports to be competitive and like to see great athletes excel on the basis of their natural abilities, not on the basis of gaining a competitive advantage through the use of illegal drugs.”

BOWDOIN: You wrote in your report "...that while the interest in names is understandable, I hope the media and the public will keep that part of the report in context." We assume you're disappointed that that didn't happen, but did you anticipate the furor over Rogers Clemens?

MITCHELL: Well, I didn't know who or under what circumstances, but I certainly anticipated there would be some controversy associated with it, and my hope is that there will be a shifting of the focus onto the substantive part of the report and the recommendations, and on the actions of baseball to implement those recommendations.

BOWDOIN: Clemens has said that he was unaware that he would be named in your report and has said that you didn't try very hard to get in touch with him prior to the release of the report. Is that accurate?

MITCHELL: I described that in great detail at a [Congressional] hearing on January 15th and the fellow who worked with me, [DLA Piper attorney] Charlie Scheeler described it again [at the hearing on February 13]. I think I'll leave it at that.1

BOWDOIN: Okay. Last question. Are we - the sports fans - somehow complicit in all of this? After all, we all want to see the ball hit further, the pitch thrown harder, bodies that resemble Greek sculpture...

MITCHELL: No individual is perfect. No society is perfect. But I think most people want sports to be competitive and like to see great athletes excel on the basis of their natural abilities, not on the basis of gaining a competitive advantage through the use of illegal drugs.

The principal victims beyond the fans, the public, and the record books, are the players who don't cheat. No one will ever be able to give a precise number, but I believe that those who used illegal substances were in the minority and therefore the majority of the players followed the rules and were placed at a competitive disadvantage. These players are faced with a very difficult situation where their options are either to risk their livelihoods and their careers by following the rules or to start using these illegal substances themselves. That's a choice that no one should have to make.

1 EDITORS NOTE: Transcripts available at press time show Clemens contradicting himself on why he did not meet with Mitchell prior to the release of what is now known as The Mitchell Report. During a January 6 interview on "60 Minutes," Clemens was asked by Mike Wallace why he didn't speak to Mitchell's investigators. "I listened to my counsel," Clemens replied. "I was advised not to. A lot of the players didn't go down and talk to him." During a Congressional hearing on the matter on February 13, when asked a similar question under oath by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Clemens denied knowing that Mitchell had been trying to meet with him: "The fact of the matter was I was never told by my baseball agent-slash-attorney that we were asked to come down and see Senator Mitchell. If I knew the lies that [Brian] McNamee was talking about me, I would have been down there to see Senator Mitchell in a heartbeat, in a New York minute."