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.
Instead of creating a dialogue with her fellow female celebrity athletes, such as Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, and Venus and Serena Williams, she said, she squandered her national media platform, engaging in behind-the-scenes competition for endorsement deals, magazine covers and interviews.
As Marion Jones stood up there, re-dedicating herself to the world of sports, it was hard not to remember what a charismatic and stunning athlete she was. It is also still impossible not to be stunned by the arrogance of her offenses. As she spoke about responsibility and legacy, it was worth considering that perhaps the real reason for her rise and fall was not the mistakes that she went to jail for, but her failure, like those of many athletes of our generation, to remember history and blindly stand on the shoulders of those who marched, sued and demanded gender and racial equality in sports long before our time.
It was fitting that during the Q&A session, Jones ran over to John Carlos, the former track and field athlete best known for raising a black-power fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics, and gave him a hug. Watching the exchange, I couldn’t help imagining the poignancy of a private conversation between Jones and Carlos. What would he say to her about her responsibility to sports, to women to black athletes? What would she say to him about her decisions, her cover-ups, her downfall? What wisdom might be passed on in similar conversations between other controversial sports giants? What would Willie Mays and Barry Bonds say to one another?
Certainly Marion Jones’ appearance at Penn was one more carefully planned stop on her long road toward public rehabilitation. But whatever calculation went into the appearance does not cancel out its potential impact. Important messages were conveyed about passing the baton of public responsibility from one generation to another. And in admitting that she had failed to take that responsibility seriously, Jones succeeded in elevating the issue for the young runners in the room. It is far too soon to tell if Jones will ever be able to fully rehabilitate her image. But if she can do anything at all to bring greater equality to that field we call “women’s sports,” it will be a worthy and admirable penitence.
Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.
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Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.