Reporter Discusses Barry Bonds Steroid Scandal
A reporter for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), Mark Fainaru-Wada, came to UC Irvine on Thursday, March 6, to discuss the post-publishing experience of his New York Times-best-selling book, “Game of Shadows.” The book is a true crime story about a steroids dealer, an investigator and San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The lecture, jointly sponsored by the UCI literary journalism and English departments, was designed to give students interested in journalism an in-depth look at the investigative aspect of writing.
Upon the request of his friend, UCI sports journalism instructor Steve Lowery, Fainaru-Wada described how he and his partner, Lance Williams, both reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, went through the process of uncovering the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) scandal, which led to a string of articles and eventually a book. However, after the book was published, Fainaru-Wada and his partner were subpoenaed by the government to testify before a federal grand jury to explain how they had obtained leaked government information.
Fainaru-Wada described how he and Williams stumbled onto the story after receiving a tip about a government raid on the BALCO sports nutrition center as part of an “enforcement act.”
Fainaru-Wada detailed the investigative process in which he and Williams found out that the company was part of a grand jury hearing. The case centered on steroids abuse, with Bonds as a major part of the case along with many other athletes.
According to Fainaru-Wada, the story was big because, “as opposed to a regular drug case where guys are buying crack on the corner, these are multi-million dollar athletes making more millions by virtually using these drugs.”
Fainaru-Wada and Williams conducted a two-year investigation around the BALCO sports nutrition center, which supplied steroids for many elite athletes such as Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Bill Romanoski. He and Williams wrote a series of exclusive stories on the BALCO scandal and Bond’s alleged abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. These stories led to a string of honors for the duo such as the Edgar A. Poe award from the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors award.
After earning these honors, Fainaru-Wada and Williams decided to write a book summarizing their findings and sources, which included over 200 interviews from the investigation, 1,000 documents such as affidavits from BALCO investigators and even grand jury testimonies. This proved to be challenging as neither of them had ever ventured outside of print journalism.
Drawing from their sources and documents, the two put their storytelling skills to the test. Fainaru-Wada described his narrative style and how it resulted in a true crime story rich with characters, including BALCO owner Victor Conte, a manipulative dealer; Jeff Navitzky, the FBI investigator determined to catch him; and Bonds, the player who fell victim to his own ambition.
The two were surprised at the success of the book as it went on to become a New York Times best seller. Recently, there have even been discussions of adapting the film into a movie.
“Our goal [was] simply not to lose money,” Fainaru-Wada said. “I don’t think anyone imagined the book would have the success it did.”
The book not only brought critical recognition, but also legal ramifications, or “legal crud” as Fainaru-Wada called it, as he described to the audience what he faced after his investigations.
In 2006, the government launched an investigation into the writers to find out how they had gotten their stories and sources, specifically Bonds’ leaked testimony which was the lynchpin of Fainaru-Wada and Williams’ book. Months after the book was released, they were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury about how they had obtained Bonds’ grand jury testimony. If they refused to reveal their sources, Fainaru-Wada and Williams could have faced 18 months in jail. Fortunately, they appealed their case and escaped sentencing. Their case also caught the attention of the U.S. Senate and brought up the need for a federal shield law, which would give journalists the right to not reveal their sources.
A member of the audience asked whether, inspite of the legal drama, he would do it again, to which Fainaru-Wada simply responded that it was the “story of a lifetime on so many levels. … Yeah, I would do it all over again.”
The lecture was well-received as many students felt that they had learned something valuable.
“I enjoyed hearing what [Fainaru-Wada] had to say,” said Jamie Hahlbohm, a third-year literary journalism major. “I really enjoyed hearing about the legal aspects of trying to break stories.”