Marion Jones, Role Model?

The disgraced Olympian is back on the public speaking circuit. But what she’s asking forgiveness for now has nothing to do with her prison stint.

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The silences in Marion Jones first public speech since she was released from prison last fall were as percussive as the words she actually spoke. Since serving six months for perjury after being convicted of fraud and the use of performance enhancing drugs, the disgraced Olympian has been interviewed by Oprah and Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts. But she has shied away from her once adoring public. Until now. At an annual “Race and Sports” lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania late last month, Jones spoke to an audience of roughly 200, to commemorate the 37th anniversary of Title IX.  

Never in the 90-minute moderated discussion did Jones mention steroids or in any way reference the doping cover-up or check forgery that led her to prison. Yet the issues Jones did speak about—gender, race, sports—seemed to resonate with her mostly African-American audience of runners, students and parents.  

Five months pregnant and standing brilliantly tall in a brown flower-print dress, she deftly impressed her audience by focusing not on her personal drama but rather on what she called another “crisis” within sports—the still limited opportunities for female athletes, particularly black female athletes, at both the collegiate and professional levels.  

Intervening into the standard dialogues which almost always define “race” and “sports” through the male-dominated lens of the civil rights movement, Jones recognized her equal debt to Title IX, the 1972 measure that banned sex-based discrimination in education, and by extension, collegiate sports.  

She noted, that unlike “some of our mothers, and all of our grandmothers who never had such opportunities,” she, as an African-American female athlete had professional choices and commercial success due to the advent of Title IX legislation. She wondered, “How many African-American female athletes would have had the opportunity to pursue our passion of sports without Title IX?”  

And while she talked frankly about the difficulties women still face in sports, she said barriers shouldn’t amount to excuses: “Our gender often makes it an uphill battle to achieve success in sports and to receive equal recognition to our male counterparts in society, but not impossible.”  

Jones may make a curious messenger, but according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, her comments about gender-inequity in sports, whether it be scholarships, salary or endorsements, are dead-on. On a collegiate level, while 55 percent of college students are female, women’s teams receive only 38 percent of college sports operating dollars and 33 percent of college athletic team recruitment spending. The disparities persist in professional sports as well. For a WNBA player in the 2009 season, the minimum salary was $35,190; the maximum salary was $99,500; and the team salary cap was $803,000.  For NBA players in the 2008-2009 season, the minimum salary was $442,114; the maximum salary was $13,758,000; and the team salary cap was $58 million. 

And black female athletes must negotiate the additional burden of race alongside gender. Granted, due to the passage of Title IX, female collegiate athletes of color have experienced a dramatic increase, 955 percent, in NCAA sports participation opportunities. But, African-American women continue to represent less than 5 percent of all high school athletes, less than 10 percent of all college athletes, less than 2 percent of all coaches and less than 1 percent of all college athletics administrators.   

Unlike during her interviews on Oprah and Good Morning America, in which she talked directly about her scandalous downfall, Jones’ biggest confession at Penn did not focus on what she haltingly referred to as the “bad decision” she made on the field, but rather on her failure to use her prior celebrity to help even the playing field in sports.