Marion Jones has fallen from grace. I’m sure we’ve all read the reports about how, after years of being one of the most vocal athletes to defend herself against the armada of allegations assailing her, this record holder and Olympic medalist confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions. Marion Jones cheated. She was doped up. She not only admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, but of knowing that she was taking such drugs even while she continued to compete, while she knowingly beat multiple drug tests, and while she knowingly denied every suspicion. Sadly, such stories have become familiar this year, which has had many terrible sports stories. She’s just another athlete who did something they shouldn’t have done, denied and lied, and then apologized in disgrace.
I really liked Marion Jones. Witty, easy to listen to, confident, and, of course, an amazing athlete who seemed to find exuberance in every powerful lunge toward the finish line. And I admit to feeling disappointment and anger over her cheating. I’m not willing yet to give in to cynics who can only say, “I told you so.” I still want to believe in athletes and the amazing things they can do. But I also can see the traces of writing on the wall. This cascade of athlete betrayals is making it increasingly difficult to maintain optimism. Nevertheless, there is a spark of difference in Marion Jones’s cheating story that has rekindled some of my belief in athletics and those who compete.
But this spark certainly was not there on Friday, when the story seemed to have the most heat. Jones had admitted that she lied to federal agents regarding doping, the Washington Post had printed what it claimed were excerpts from a letter Jones had written to friends and family, and she appeared before cameras toward the end of the day tearily asking for everyone’s forgiveness. At that point, I was feeling the same disdain I have felt toward all athletes who knowingly cheat and then have the audacity to ask their fans for “forgiveness.”
It sincerely bothers me when the “f-word” is thrown about in such an insincere manner. By asking for our forgiveness, cheater-athletes twice break our trust: They misuse that which we first gave them, and then they come back and ask for something more. We fans always give athletes more than they ever can give back to us. We buy tickets for their games, we gather together to watch them compete – heck, we even buy their shoes, their cereal, their posters and their jerseys. We add them to our lexicon and their achievements become our metaphors for greatness. Consequently, their admissions of cheating (or worse) mock us, revealing how easily we make heroes and revel in others’ greatness. But we do so not because we are naive (well, mostly not), but because it isn’t fun unless we can believe. Jones and others don’t seem to understand that their fans need something out of them; something deep and significant and important to how we conduct ourselves and understand our social bonds. We need sports heroes, and they need to be heroic. That’s why the betrayal is such a disappointment. It’s not just that one athlete cheated; it’s that they cheated all of us out of everything sports is supposed to give us.
When Jones asked for forgiveness on Friday, my stomach turned because it seemed that she was going to follow the usual route and make the issue only about her. She cheated, she lied, and now she wants to be forgiven. What do we fans get out of forgiving her, or of seeing her cry and ask for forgiveness? And what would our forgiveness do for her, except show that we are willing to give even that to an athlete who lets us down. Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t want a pound of flesh from her. What I want is an athlete to not just say they know that fans are disappointed in them, but to realize and to understand that disappointment. I want an athlete who is worthy of forgiveness. I want them to earn this one thing legitimately. On Friday, Marion Jones seemed to be as insincere in asking for forgiveness as she was in her claims of telling the truth.
But, as I said, there is a new spark of optimism. With her announcement on Monday that she will be returning her Olympic medals, Jones has taken a small but not-insignificant step toward earning back some measure of respect. I’m sure she’s offering up her medals in hopes that whatever other punishments still pending against her will be less severe, but before we get cynical again, keep in mind that other athletes have had similar motivations and have refused to give anything back. Instead, they have had their medals and accolades stripped from them, allowing them to maintain their stubborn position that even though they cheated, they still should keep their ill-gotten gains. By volunteering her medals, Jones has offered something back to the fans, and therein lies the optimism. Hers is a meaningfully symbolic gesture to which, I hope, other sports cheaters pay attention. It demonstrates that she wants to give something of herself back; it recognizes that there is a dynamic between athletes and fans, and that it cannot simply flow one way. Those who only ask for forgiveness and offer nothing in return fail to understand this dynamic and therefore fail to earn any consideration for their failings. They still cling to their selfish greed that wants them to keep everything, including their pride and our sympathy. Those who hold on to this perversion deserve every ounce of scorn the fans, commissioners, senators, and record keepers can muster.
Marion Jones has shown that spark of recognition that may eventually grow to light the path to reconciliation. I’m not so optimistic as to believe that we fans will ever trust her completely again, or even root for her in the unlikely event that she returns to competition. But by giving something meaningful back, and continuing to try to find ways to give back to her fans in recognition of all they have given her, she may find that she will indeed get something in return – something that the Landis’s, Vick’s, Palmero’s, and Rose’s of the world likely will never have: The ability to hold her head up when she looks a fan in the eye, and know that she doesn’t have to tell another lie in order for that fan to understand her. And I believe that would be an achievement well worth rewarding.