To say the past few years have been hectic for investigative journalist Lance Williams would be an understatement.
Covering the ongoing steroid scandal in professional sports for the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams, alongside Mark Fainaru-Wada, have worked nonstop uncovering the truth behind Victor Conte’s illegal performance enhancing company, BALCO. In doing so, the two have written numerous articles for the Chronicle and have collaborated on the book, “Game of Shadows,” that exposed the secrets of Conte and all the athletes involved in the scandal such as Marion Jones, Jason Giambi, Bill Romanowski, Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds.
Now almost three years after the book was released, the country is still mesmerized by the story and the amount of work that went into uncovering the biggest doping scandal in American sports history.
“We started covering this story in 2003 when the feds raided this nutritional supplement company, BALCO,” said Williams. “We worked on it first as a newspaper story for a couple of years and we went on leave to write the book in the spring of 2005. We really decided to do it in January of 2005.
“In the early going, we were often surprised at how intense the reaction was to some of the stories. When you’d have an exclusive story on BALCO, it would blow so much higher than anything I’ve ever seen before,” Williams adds, “I think it reflects how seriously Americans take sports, they really care about it.”
Despite not being a sports writer, Williams had no problem connecting with the subject matter, noting he was a fan of both Bonds and Giambi before deciding to write the book with Fainaru-Wada.
“I wasn’t a sports writer [prior to the book], I was an investigative reporter. I was a sports fan, kind of a five or six games a year fan, but I followed the game,” Williams said. “As a player, I had really liked Jason Giambi when he was on the Oakland Athletics. As a player, I really liked Bonds in his early years with the Giants.
“The first year he [Bonds] was with the Giants , they had this wonderful pennant race with the Braves that they lost on the last day of the season, it was just as exciting as it gets and he was a great player, but I never really reconnected with baseball after the strike [in 1994] and didn’t pay much attention when Bonds was breaking the homerun record.”
Having to talk to numerous different sources in order to discover the horrible truth engulfing professional sports at the time, Williams recollects some of the different people that crossed his path during the writing of the book.
“Some of the people we’ve talked to, we don’t mention, because we’ve never identified them,” said Williams. “But Kim Bell was an interesting person whom I interviewed a bunch of times, that’s Barry’s [Bonds] former girlfriend.
“When I heard that I had the opportunity to interview her and talk to her, I imagined her as a totally different person from what she actually is. I guess I expected someone more along the lines of a baseball-groupie type, but Kim wasn’t like that at all. She’s a smart woman that made some mistakes in her life at an early age that stayed with her, but she’s likeable and a real truth teller. She tells every story the same way every time. She never tells you anything she doesn’t know. She’s had an interesting life and offered a very interesting perspective on Bonds.”
Having been the victims of both public scrutiny and a subpoena by a California grand jury for failing to reveal the anonimous sources mentioned in the book that leaked testimony regarding Giambi and Bonds, Williams and Fainaru-Wada had jail time held in front of their faces if they didn’t adhere to the courts demands. They had no intention to do so.
“What they do to us is up to the system and we’ll have to endure that,” said Williams. “We just can’t give up our sources. That wasn’t the agreement that we had with our sources. It wasn’t that we’d give them up if things got rough; it was that we weren’t going to give them up at all. That’s for the sources to do. If they want to talk about their roles in helping us, they’re free to, but we’re not going to do that. That wasn’t the arrangement we had, the people weren’t going to be identified for publication and that was our agreement; we’re going to keep our word on that.
“We’re going to keep our word and hope that someone recognizes that there’s a first amendment issue at stake here when you come after reporters and try and make them witnesses for the prosecution.”
Rather than focus on the pressure the government is put on him and Fainaru-Wada at the time to reveal their sources, Williams believes the government had a great opportunity to turn the tables on both Conte and the athletes accused of doping and failed to do so.
“I thought it was a big missed opportunity for the government. They had to know they weren’t going to be able to put these steroid dealers away for very long anyway, simply because the law doesn’t treat steroids with the same severity as they treat heroin or cocaine,” said Williams. “So if you’re going to invest in the investigation, why not do some public good and clean up these sports by laying the cards face up on the table and see what these wealthy athletes were doing, as well the dope dealers?
“I do think it was a missed opportunity and I’ve never quite understood it, because at the highest level, President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft were really interested in controlling steroid use in professional sports.”
However, despite all the criticism and attention the book has been getting since it was released, Williams has no regrets.
“I’ve been a newspaper reporter for 32 years, so it was totally fun to do something different with material. At the same time, don’t kid yourself, writing a book is hard slogging with a lot of hard work, but I’m glad I did it,” Williams said.
“I think the topic is important because kids and prep athletes emulate the elite athletes and if they think it’s OK to use these powerful drugs that have serious health effects, they’re going to use them too and really distort sports at the school level. That’s why I think controlling steroid use is important and I think the book has pushed that goal along and I’m proud of that.”
Patrick Hickey Jr.
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