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.

This contradiction 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 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 case. 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. Her fall 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.

In 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.”

A multibillion-dollar 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.

But what 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.”

Marion Jones 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.

Marion Jones 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.