What Made Her So Believable
“She made it easy to love her,” says John Singleton over a slide show of Marion Jones images. As she appears in poses you remember—running hard on a track, displaying a medal on her neck, and smiling brilliantly—he explains, “She was smart, funny, and sexy, and a remarkable talent. Most of all, she seemed to be the consummate professional, she was virtuous. Maybe that’s what made her so believable.”
With this trite summary, Singleton sets up a provocative central dilemma for his documentary, Marion Jones: Press Pause: how could she could have gone so wrong? Beginning with the idea that “she made it easy to love her,” the film, premiering this week as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, goes on to look at the relationship between the athlete and her stardom, Jones and you. “What made her so believable” concerns not only her ambitions and decisions, but also the system that made her, that benefitted from her brilliance and her deception.
Certainly, Marion Jones: Press Pause reminds you of her terrific charisma. Whether she’s recalling her efforts, victories, or bad choices, Jones in interviews now remains a wholly charming personality. Even in a 2010 PSA, taking responsibility for her mistakes and cautioning listeners to learn from them as well, she’s winning: “Hi, I’m Marion Jones,” she says, though she hardly needs to. After listing the many losses she suffered as a consequence of doping (medals, reputation, and “a multi-million dollar income”), she underlines, “The most devastating loss was the loss of my freedom. I went to prison. Why? Because I took performance enhancing drugs and I lied about it.”
It’s Marion Jones’ betrayal that seems most significant. She’s not the only athlete to cheat and she’s certainly not the only one to lie. But she was uncommonly “believable” before she confessed her sins, and for that, the film suggests, she seems especially culpable.
No matter that Jones never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Her name was found in BALCO’s records, along with those of Kelli White, British sprinter Dwain Chambers, shot putter Kevin Toth, Barry Bonds, and Jason Giambi: from that moment forward, she was “suspected.” Unlike fellow suspects Bonds, Lance Armstrong, and Roger Clemons, however, she admitted in 2007 not only that she took drugs, but also that she lied about it. And that changed everything. As the film recounts, Jones was convicted of lying to federal investigators and sentenced to six months in prison. (Here she spent 48 days in solitary, she tells Singleton, following a fight with a cellmate: “I don’t want to fight, I’m a grown woman”). Being separated from her husband Obadele Thompson and two young sons, she says repeatedly, was especially difficult. With this idea of Jones as a devoted mother and wife, the film shapes her story as one of regret and redemption, one where her current employment by the Tulsa Shock (and inevitably following media attention) underscores her commitment to her own recovery and also, to making her story an example for young people.
Though the film is less focused on the broader framing of Jones’ story by gender and race politics, it does feature interviewees who raise such questions. Ron Rapaport takes a short view, focused on Jones per se, dismissing the “bad man theory.” Because she’s “the toughest woman I’ve ever been around,” he says, she would not have been influenced by “bad husbands and bad associates.” Instead, “She knew exactly what she was up to. She was in control of her surroundings, control of her environment.” Jones’ former UNC teammate Melissa Johnson sees that environment more broadly, citing “the hypocrisy in our society around performance-enhancing drugs in different sports and her doing what was expected of her: winning, putting it all on the line.” Jones’ decisions—like those of other athletes, male and female, indicate a culture of cheating, an unhealthy network of athletes, managers, celebrities, and fans who collude in creating, selling and buying stories of success and heroism.
And the New York Times’ William C. Rhoden frames the saga yet again. “Don’t you ever get in these integrated kind of situations and think that you can do the same kind of things that they can do,” he cautions. “I don’t care if you’re the president of the United States or Marion Jones or Barry Bonds or Michael Vick. You know there are people waiting for you, consciously or unconsciously, to screw up. And when you screw up, you’re throwing yourself on the feet of a court that historically does not have mercy on black people in this country.”
The film never suggests that Jones didn’t know what she was doing at any point. Though it doesn’t ask her to explain why she took drugs, it does present her decision to lie in an unnervingly quick series of edits between her remembering the moment (“In that blink of an eye, I know that I cannot risk all the hard work that I’ve put in since the age of eight or nine, I was not gong to risk my family’s future, I was not going to risk my lifestyle…”) and her lawyer Rich Nichols remembering the same moment (“I wish she’d taken a break, stopped the proceedings”).
Nichols adds, “At no time did I think Marion was lying, ever.” While this sounds like what any lawyer says about any client, this sequence, unusually urgent-seeming in its construction, reintroduces the question of “what made her so believable.” If Marion Jones: Press Pause offers no definitive answer as to why she cheated, it does suggest that the punishment was harsh and that she was never the only individual lying—by omission or commission, by promoting or purchasing, but taking pleasure in enhanced performances by any number of athletes in an array of sports. A resonant question that hangs over the film, one it doesn’t investigate per se (Being focused on Jones as symptom and emblem), but also doesn’t forget. How did Jones—along with her fellow athletes, as well as countless managers and agents and fans—come to believe that cheating was okay? Even as she has paid for that belief and offers herself as an object lesson embodied, it remains in place, and not only in sports, to this day. And precious few participants are taking responsibility for it.