Much worse than acknowledging steroid use, legal experts agree in the matter of Roger Clemens, is having Congress conclude that your pants are on fire. "It was one thing to take steroids," former assistant U.S. attorney Geoff Garinther of the Washington law firm Venable LLP said in an e-mail. "It's quite another to give false testimony to Congress."
Thursday's indictment, of course, accuses Clemens of the latter during televised February 2008 hearings on Capitol Hill. "And here's the worst part," said Robert Boland, an NYU sports business professor who has worked as a criminal lawyer and sports agent. "He didn't even have to appear. He was under no subpoena, but he made a statement that was pretty arrogant."
Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman who was co-chair of the 2008 hearings, confirmed that Clemens and his lawyers were assured at the time that Clemens would have the chance to clear his name without a public appearance, and that Davis' committee probably would not have had the Justice Department pursue the perjury indictment if Clemens had not insisted on aggressively and repeatedly denying the evidence against him.
Boland referenced the attorney's gag of a wall-mounted fish engraved with the words, "He wouldn't have been caught if he kept his mouth shut."
To now be facing a trial and possible prison time "is completely, absolutely self-inflicted," Boland said. "Clemens had so many off ramps - immediately before [the hearings], during and after. He had myriad ways to go, and he took the absolutely wrong one."
Clemens, Boland offered, could have cited imperfect memory or danced around statements by fellow pitcher Andy Pettitte and trainer Brian McNamee by admitting he sought McNamee's help but was unsure of gray areas regarding what was legal and what McNamee may have provided him. Clemens could have given a vague "some things Brian McNamee says about me are not true."
Instead, said Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, author of the new book "Sports Justice," "The key event was the public display that by allegedly lying in the face of those congressmen on national television, he really - if it is proved in court - embarrassed the institution of Congress.
"It's OK to embarrass an opposing batter, and Clemens did that for years almost better than anyone else. But Congress, you know, has a much longer track record than even Roger Clemens, for good or bad."
Clemens' baseball reputation was that of a bulldog, and he worked that territory on Capitol Hill, but his pugnacious strategy struck legal eagles as somewhere between inappropriate and dumb. Did he have bad legal advice? Or was he simply, as Abrams put it, an "uncontrollable" client?
Did he and his legal team not see the wisdom in claiming an "innocent" mistake - ingesting substances to overcome injury without thinking through the consequences, as Pettitte acknowledged doing? Or pleading not to "talk about the past," as Mark McGwire did? Anything short of what federal prosecutors now see as unequivocal lies.
"I've probably handled a thousand criminal cases in my life," Boland said, "and what shocked me is how athletes are different. Most criminal defenders worried about the financial cost and jail time. Athletes worried about financial cost and their reputation. Clemens may still beat the rap, but his reputation has been shredded by this."
Whether Clemens ultimately winds up in the slammer - clearly possible, said Boland, who said Clemens' hubris "is seemingly the biggest issue; he's looking like Martha Stewart in this" - there remains an obvious lesson in what Boland calls "our national soap opera."
Abrams put it this way: "We either learn, or are reminded, that being under oath means something."