This has been an unprecedented era for black women in the history of women’s sports. Serena, Venus, Mo’ne Davis, Sasha Banks, Michelle Roberts, and the gutsy Maya Moore have changed the game and opened space to speak about the groundbreakers and trailblazers who built the path upon which they strut. Yet as is so often the case with mainstream sports coverage, there has been a measure of erasure of those who don’t fit this seamless narrative of progress and triumph. Verisimilitude is always the first casualty of sports history when refracted through a mainstream lens. Without it, we find ourselves thinking that every battle must be fought anew, re-explaining to troglodytic corporate execs that Serena absolutely deserves the same commercial opportunities of a certain player who Ms. Williams humbles nine out of ten times they take the court.
This is why we would do well to remember the genius and wicked daring of Olympic Track & Field leviathan Marion Jones.
The tragedy of Marion Jones is well known. After her now ex-husband, the colossal Olympic shot-putter and prodigious steroid user C. J. Hunter, testified against her, she went to prison in 2008 for lying to IRS Special Agent Jeff Novitzky about taking performance-enhancing drugs under the furtive eye of BALCO impresario Victor Conte. (Novitzky was accused by federal judges of having a “callous disregard” for the Constitution while in pursuit of Barry Bonds, and, without a warrant, stole Conte’s trash to sift through in his kitchen.)
The United States Olympic Committee head Peter Ueberroth, whose organization profited mightily by marketing Jones as the face of the sport, said that her confession was “long overdue and underscores the shame and dishonor that are inherent with cheating.”
Part of her plea deal, in addition to returning her medals, was to publicly flagellate herself. She said, through tears: “with a great amount of shame…I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust…and you have the right to be angry with me.… I have let my country down and I have let myself down.”
Shackles of shame not only keep Marion Jones out of discussions of the all-time great athletes but also prevent a younger generation from knowing that Serena is only latest chapter in a long history of black women who defied expectations, smacked down the racist marketers of Madison Avenue and showed what was possible. It also prevents that new generation from learning from her mistakes.
For the uninitiated, Marion Jones was Deion Sanders, if Deion Sanders looked like Michael Ealy. Athletically, she was a star at 17, winning the California 100 meter state title for four straight years. She was asked to join the 1992 US Olympic team at age 17, but turned it down for a basketball scholarship at The University of North Carolina. Jones was the freshman point guard on the UNC team that won the 1994 National Championship 60-59 on Charlotte Smith’s three pointer at the buzzer. She was a two-sport star, with Olympic Gold medals in her future.