When it comes
to cynicism, sports fans probably rank somewhere between politicians
and mob lawyers. They complain that players are only in sports
for the money, that ticket prices amount to robbery and that everybody
cheats. And yet, they flock to games, idolize their favorite players
and become distraught when their heroes are suddenly revealed
to be anything but.
between hardened and hopeful - the desperate desire for role models
to emerge from the primordial ooze of sports - explains the widespread
dismay at news that track and field heroine Marion Jones had admitted
to taking steroids.
The one-time icon who graced the covers of both Sports Illustrated
and Vogue admitted to lying to federal prosecutors about her anabolic
intake and returned her three gold and two bronze medals earned
at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
The shock waves following her announcement have been profound,
even among the grizzled breed known as sports writers. As Ron
Rapoport wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Jones, armed with her
beauty, skills, and hypnotic smile, "was all but inescapable as
the symbol of the possibilities, and the joy, that could flow
from a life devoted to sport."
At an October
5 press conference both tragic and riveting a devastated Jones
apologized to her fans through a mask of tears. The looming jail
time forced her to speak. Returning her medals was not imposed
by the federal government but demanded by the United States Anti-Doping
Agency For Jones, the regret, the public humiliation and the possible
time in prison are hers to bear alone. This should not be the
Fault also lies with a system that both elevates and debases sporting
superstars, turning them into something not quite human. Star
athletes have become corporations with legs: branded with logos
and slogans, and supporting an entire apparatus of advisers and
hangers-on. Jones became a one-woman multinational corporation
after her 2000 Olympic triumph: the feet of Nike, the face of
Oakley Sunglasses, the wrist of TAG Heuer watches.
All the riches
and glory hinged on her ability to shine in Sydney. Jones and
her team knew what it would mean if she performed the impossible
at the 2000 games and won five gold medals, how it would enshrine
her as an immortal of the sport. The tragedy is that even if she
hadn't taken steroids, Jones could still have succeeded mightily.
should not be hers alone. It's an indictment of every "employee"
of Marion Jones, Inc., every Olympic overseer who basked in her
glory, every corporate sponsor who made her its brand. As steroids
entered her orbit and the federal government loomed, they reacted
with either benign neglect or malignant intent. They all deserve
to shoulder some of this weight.
time to drop the Pollyanna act and the hero worship. It's
time to stop demanding the super human and start letting
the guardians of sport know that anyone who benefits from
an athlete's rise to the top should also accompany their
fall from grace.
a world in which the possibility of escaping poverty - whether
it's baseball in the Dominican Republic, basketball in Eastern
Europe or football in the Florida Panhandle - is a major motive
for many athletes to turn professional, the drive to succeed is
rarely fraught will moral conundrums. Success means money, not
only for you but also for the "employees" of you, the corporation.
You win or everyone loses. As Ricky Bobby says in the film Talladega
Nights, "If you ain't first, you're last."
sports empire has been built on this ethically flimsy foundation,
creating unexpected platforms for sanctimony from the likes of
Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the US Olympic Commitee, who
demanded that Jones return her medals.
keeps the Ueberroths, the Bud Seligs up at night is the thought
that it is all built on a house of anabolic cards: on the ability
of athletes to evolve on fast-forward and continue their ability
to amaze. As a baseball player once told me, the problem with
the debate on performance-enhancing drugs is that "punishment
is an individual issue but distribution is a team issue."
should not spend one minute in prison for lying to the feds, and
that's not just because President Bush and Scooter Libby have
given us precedent to believe that such punishments might be "unduly
harsh." She was lying to protect Marion Jones, Inc. She was lying
to protect Ueberroth's Olympic ideal, which in the twenty-first
century has become little more than a frenzy of greed and graft
in pursuit of gold.
should be granted amnesty on the grounds that the entire system
sets athletes up for failure. As fans and followers of sport,
it's time to drop the Pollyanna act and the hero worship. It's
time to stop demanding the super human and start letting the guardians
of sport know that anyone who benefits from an athlete's rise
to the top should also accompany their fall from grace.
Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain,
Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is
also the author of "The Muhammad Ali Handbook" (MQ Publications)
and has also gotten himself a blog site, www.myspace.com/edgeofsports,
which he invites you to visit. His book, "What's My Name Fool?
Sports and Resistance in the United States," is also in stores.
You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every week by emailing
says: "I love writing this column but can only
continue with this work if people buy the books. We have a lot
of mouths to feeds in this house (and about three of them are
you believe in progressive, iconoclastic sports writing please
pick up a copy of Welcome To The Terrordome. If you believe in
being part of a project to "tear down the Terrordome,"
pick up five and give them to the apolitical sports fans in your
life. The only way ideas like this spread are from the bottom
up. Any questions, feel free to hit me back at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other articles by Dave Zirin:
Why Michael Vick Is Not A Fascist
When Domes Attack
The Meaning Of The Sports Spectacle
Clown Prince Of Bizarro World
No Scapegoats: The Other Side Of Hip-Hop
(co-written with Jeff Chang)
The Greatest Anti-War Protestor
Pimping Mike Tyson
Pat Tillman's Brother Breaks His Silence
The Passing Of Peter Norman
When Fists Are Frozen
Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey
Hey Guys, It's Not A War
Using Soccer To Kick Iran
Why Did Pat Tillman Die?
Why Pat Tillman's Parents Are No Longer Silent