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NEWS ANALYSIS

The damage can't be repaired

January 12, 2008|Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

If you look for pictures of Marion Jones, you will find one in track garb from the cover of Time magazine, another in a slinky gown from the cover of Vogue and another with the milk mustache A-list celebrities wear in the "Got milk" advertising campaign.

Among those in the milk ads have been magician David Copperfield, action film hero Jackie Chan, "Sex and the City" star Kim Cattrall, talk show host Conan O'Brien, singer Beyonce, supermodel Tyra Banks and baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken.

Pretty fast company for Jones, even if she could outrun them all, her career a rush of stopwatch-and-credulity-defying numbers that earned her three Olympic gold medals, millions of dollars and a status in the celebrity world Olympic athletes rarely attain.

Jones, who competed at Oxnard Rio Mesa and Thousand Oaks highs, will be keeping different company starting March 11 or sooner, with people whose numbers reflect a different kind of status: inmate.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas sentenced Jones on Friday to six months in jail for lying about her use of performance-enhancing drugs and her role in a money-laundering scheme that included her coach, her agent and another disgraced track star, Tim Montgomery, father of her first child.

Jones is all but broke, according to her lawyers. She also has lost every semblance of the respect that came from her achievements as an athlete, achievements enhanced by her charisma, infectious smile, communications skills, steroids and other banned drugs.

"Marion's athletic accomplishments can never be resurrected. This has been permanently corrupted and negated," two-time Olympic hurdles champion Edwin Moses said in an e-mail after the sentencing.

"On a personal level, life always provides a way for resurrection."

Few athletes have fallen as far and as quickly as Jones, especially if the bottom line is prison.

The closest comparison would be to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who recently got 23 months in federal prison after a conviction on dogfighting charges.

The difference is Vick, 27, likely will have a chance to rebuild his reputation, at least partly, through what he does as an active athlete. Jones, 32, has announced her retirement from track, ending a career without a significant achievement since she won the 2001 world title at 200 meters.

That title and her five 2000 Olympic medals, most by a woman track athlete in a single Olympics, were stripped after her admission of doping when she pleaded guilty Oct. 5.

"Unlike Vick, who was at the top of his game, her athletic reputation slid for a long time before she admitted she was using drugs," said Richard Lapchick, a sports ethicist at the University of Central Florida. "She can't get that back."

Other star athletes who have rebounded after a fall, although one that did not include jail, still had time left in their sports careers.

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant (charge of sexual assault dismissed) has the best-selling jersey in the NBA. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (guilty of obstruction of justice in a murder case) remains a celebrated player in Baltimore. Latrell Sprewell (choked his Golden State coach) went on to become a popular star for the New York Knicks. Paul Hornung (suspended from the NFL for betting on games and associating with undesirables) remained the "Golden Boy" when he returned the next season.

"Even without returning to sports, I think Marion can have another career," said Northwestern University professor of communications studies Irv Rein, who has written extensively about problems affecting celebrities.

"She is free to reinvent herself with a great story line -- the repentant sinner who returns to serve society. She is also in a unique marketing position as a woman athlete who made it to the top and fell. There have been a lot of men in that position but few women."

Figure skater Tonya Harding is another champion female athlete whose reputation plummeted after criminal activity. But she never attained stardom like that of Jones, and Harding chose to move on by sticking to the picaresque image that made her unique as a rowdy hell-raiser in a genteel sport.

Jones' case "and Vick's case seemed to go to the judge in a similar way -- there was a deal, the government made a sentencing recommendation, and the judges sentenced at the high end," said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. "There has been a lot of talk about celebrity justice, that celebrities somehow get a better deal. For these two, it went the other way."

Jones' sport also has suffered damaging consequences from the fraud perpetrated by a woman many called the greatest female track athlete in history.

"At a point in time, she was the symbol of our sport globally, and responsibility came with that," said Renaldo Nehemiah, former hurdles world record holder.

"I appreciate her candor in saying she misled everyone, but it doesn't take away the personal and global sting of what she did. She was one of us."

Moses, who won Olympic gold in 1976 and 1984, felt Jones contributed to the widespread belief that "high-level and sustained performance cannot be obtained without doping."

"Not only that," Moses said, "but now the word on the street is everyone in the past must have done the same. . . . The damage she has done to the sport is incomprehensible."

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Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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