A Compassion Play

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, October 6, 2007


I waited on the courthouse steps for John Dillinger, but instead out came a young woman in a pink collar and pinstripe suit, trying to look brave. She stood there, straight-backed with attempted dignity, and faced the microphones, her mother's hand on her shoulder. Her voice started out firmly enough, and then broke in half.

You're welcome to whatever judgment you have of Marion Jones, whatever recriminations you want to heap on her for using a steroid, and lying to the prosecutors. But anyone who sat in the U.S. District courtroom as she directed her clear, firm plea of guilty to Judge Kenneth M. Karas, and then watched her deliver that shattered emotional apology, her voice cracking on words like "deeply ashamed" and "disastrous," in front of the cream pillars of the courthouse, was hard pressed to wish much punishment on her.

"I am responsible for my own actions, and I have no one to blame for myself," she said. "I want you to know that I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me. I have let my family down, my country down, and myself down."

Marion Jones swallowed steroids, and lied about it, and who knows if she's telling the whole truth now, when she says she didn't take them knowingly, but rather was given them by her coach, Trevor Graham. Frankly, it doesn't matter anymore. She's dead broke, her career is finished and she's facing a prison sentence. Others may view her an arch-criminal, but you won't hear that here. Personally I've always liked her, though I was always uncertain whether she was guilty of doping, and I've never quite understood the intensity of efforts to take Jones down, which seemed too much like big-game hunting.

I liked her again in the courtroom, liked her strong bearing, and athletic gait as she entered the room and cast a reassuring smile at her mother, Marion Toler. Her voice and her posture were firm throughout nearly an hour-long session before the judge to enter her two guilty pleas, one for lying about whether she had ever taken the Balco-manufactured substance known as the clear, and one for lying about whether she knew her rotten ex-boyfriend and father of her child, Tim Montgomery, was involved in a bank fraud scheme. She didn't shy from the microphone, but rather leaned forward and made sure to speak every sentence into it clearly.

"I plead guilty, your honor."

"I understand, your honor."

"This was a lie, your honor."

You can't do better than she did under the circumstances. Other people may see a criminal in Jones, but all I see is a personal tragedy. She was a great basketball player at North Carolina, a quicksilver talent at point guard who was too fast for her teammates to keep up with, and helped win a national championship. Sometime back in 1998, I interviewed Jones for a magazine piece, and found her to be gentle, with a sunny, crooked-toothed grin, but intensely guarded. Even then there was a shadow over her, her family and friends were deeply concerned over her impending marriage to C.J. Hunter, the older man she had met at UNC, and who would introduce her to Graham, and test positive himself for performance enhancers. It was also apparent that Hunter was the first man she had ever really trusted and that she was someone who craved protection. She kept a beloved dog by her side, a chow named Isabella who cared for no one but Jones, and cast a murderous eye at anyone else.

I don't have the clarity on Jones, or on doping issues in general, that others do. I lack the proper censoriousness. It would be very nice to think that the sports world is divided into two sharply discernable groups, the pure and impure, the innocents and cheats. But who are we supposed to give her tainted gold medal to? The second-place finisher? That would be Katerina Thanou of Greece, who was forced to withdraw from the Athens Olympics for dodging drug tests on the back of a motorcycle.

Instead of recriminations for Jones, I only have a giant, resounding why? Why take what Graham gave her while supposedly not asking what it was? Insecurity, bad advice, ambition and the suspicion that she couldn't compete in a dope-riddled sport, are the presumable answers. Why did she lie to federal agents? Fear and stupidity are the only guesses. The stakes must have seemed too high to tell the truth. Next thing you know you've gone from something you can rationalize, to something you can't.

None of my broader questions about doping or Jones got answered Friday. All that was accomplished was the end of a career. This much is sure: she's guilty of lying. "I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me," she said. Personally, she has mine.

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