Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Still Running: Marion Jones: Press Pause
“I took performance enhancing drugs, and I lied about it.” How many modern athletes have been too cowardly to utter those 10 simple words, even when confronted with evidence of their sins? Marion Jones says them with poise and confidence, her eyes looking directly into the camera. This clip from a 2010 public service announcement is the opening salvo in a barrage of admission and contrition that opens John Singleton’s documentary about the disgraced sprinter. From here we cut to the steps of a federal courthouse in 2007 where Jones stands before assembled cameras and microphones and says, “I have betrayed your trust,” “I am responsible fully for my actions,” “I have no one to blame but myself” and “I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me.” Her words sound premeditated but not rehearsed. She speaks not from a page and thus seemingly her heart. She allows a few tears to roll down her face, but she maintains her composure. In that moment and in several others this film, Marion Jones is everything we wish Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa would be: accountable. Too bad she couldn’t be honest, too.
In Marion Jones: Press Pause, Jones is forthcoming about her mistakes in the way that Michael Vick has been forthcoming about dog fighting, and Tiger Woods has been forthcoming about his extramarital sex and Brett Favre has been forthcoming about his extramarital voice messages: only as required. Did Jones lie to federal investigators? Yes. Did she deliberately mislead the public? Yes. Did she use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)? Yes. Those are things Jones willingly admits, because at this point she has no other choice than to do so; a federal investigation forced the truth out of her. But when it comes to how, when and why the five-time Olympic medalist took PEDs, Jones is glaringly mum, which makes all of her other admissions incomplete at best and misleading at worst. In this documentary, the latest installment in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, Jones carries herself with the air of someone who is holding nothing back, but if you watch carefully you’ll notice that she admits to what she’s been found guilty of and absolutely nothing more. Expecting the whole truth and nothing but the truth from a serial liar, whose repeated public denials were so emphatic that Attitcus Finch would have gladly volunteered to represent her pro bono, is as foolish as expecting Olympic athletes to turn down the opportunity for multi-million-dollar success by just saying no to PEDs. (The system is broken.) But expecting a filmmaker profiling the rise and fall of Marion Jones to at least broach the subject of how she got mixed up in PEDs in the first place? That doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Instead, Singleton enables Jones’ delusions. He avoids the PED narrative as if it were an expendable subplot, conveniently beginning his film with Jones’ tearful confession, and confusing the act that sent Jones to prison (lying to federal agents) with the acts that ruined her reputation (taking PEDs and then convincing us she hadn’t). In that sense, Press Pause is the sports equivalent of a documentary about gangster Al Capone that focuses on his arrest for tax evasion. I’m not going to argue that Singleton had an “obligation” to break down Jones in Frost/Nixon fashion, but in the least he could have avoided portraying her as a role model for accountability when she’s so obviously running from the truth. At one point in this film, Singleton captures Jones speaking at a high school in Dallas, and you’ll have to look beyond the cheers of the students, the swelling of the score and the effusive compliments of the principal to realize that for all that Jones honorably admits there is so much that she avoids. “I decided to lie to federal agents and prosecutors and investigators,” she says with dramatic emphasis. “I decided to lie when asked about using performing enhancing drugs. And in a way, you know what, I decided to lie to myself, because I was trying to avoid the consequences of other choices that I had made.” Did you catch that? That third sentence, when you would expect the supposedly honest Jones to admit that she decided to take PEDs, simply restates the second sentence, only with Jones cast as the victim – and not for the last time. “You make good choices when you hang with good people,” she continues. “And when you hang with losers, you’re going to make bad choices.” Does that sound like accountability to you? It isn’t. It’s a passive aggressive shot at her former coach and former husbands.
The problem is that Jones is so charming, so charismatic, so at ease, so direct, even in deceit, that people make the inexplicable decision to take her at her word, or even to rally to her defense. Her former basketball coach at North Carolina, Sylvia Hatchell, essentially invokes A Few Good Men’s Code Red defense, implying that Jones is a good soldier who was given bad orders. William C. Rhoden of the New York Times suggests that Jones’ six-month prison sentence is the unjust ruling of a legal system that is historically unkind to blacks. And former UNC teammate Melissa Johnson shakes her head at the “hypocrisy” of a sports landscape in which some sports stars are heavily punished in their prime while others get away with it. But let’s be clear: Jones is no victim. She just plays one on TV. In this film, it’s almost comical to see Jones remembering the shock she felt when she was sentenced to prison for “six months?!?,” or implying that her lies to federal investigators were the result of a need to maintain the rhythm of the interrogation by answering immediately, as if having more time to think about her responses would have led her to the truth she’d been denying for months. History shows that Jones denies wrongdoing until someone proves she’s done wrong, and even then she admits as little as possible. The only thing that we can be sure Jones regrets is being caught.
Don’t mistake this as hostility toward Jones. I root for her redemption because, well, I’m charmed, too. Sure, she likely used an array of PEDs very knowingly. Sure, even now, she cowardly (and passive aggressively) attributes her mistakes to the influences of bad men in her life, including her ex-husbands (thrower C.J. Hunter, to whom she has repeatedly tied to her PED use, and sprinter Tim Montgomery, with whom she was reportedly involved in a check counterfeiting scam – a topic that goes entirely unmentioned in this film). But somehow Jones really does seem like a good person who has done some bad things. And even though the film overstates the symbolism of Jones reviving her athletic career by playing in the WNBA (it’s called getting a job; people do that), I’m glad she’s moving forward. I just wish she’d head back to the past long enough to clear up her record, to face the truth. The film ends with Jones saying that her personal “highlight” would be having someone walk up to her and thank her for not quitting. But I suggest Jones needs a different message: Quit patting yourself on the back for coming clean about what had already been exposed. Quit pretending. Quit running.
Marion Jones: Press Pause premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.