Olympic track champion Marion Jones with former coach Trevor Graham. Jones pleaded guilty to illegal steroid use during early October 2007.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
By Monica Moorehead
Published Jan 17, 2008 10:08 PM
What’s wrong with these two pictures?
First, Bill Belichick, the head coach of the National Football League’s undefeated New England Patriots, is caught cheating this past September by authorizing the videotaping of defensive signals by the New York Jets’ assistant coaches during a game. He gets a slap on the wrist and is recently named Coach of the Year. Other NFL coaches have complained in the past that this isn’t the first time the Patriots have used such tactics to get the upper hand.
Second, Marion Jones, a 2000 U.S. Olympic champion, is found guilty for lying to federal investigators regarding steroid use, is forced to return her gold and bronze medals, and then gets sentenced to six months in jail followed by two years’ probation and 800 hours of community service. The judge handed out this harsh sentence on Jan. 11 even after a tearful Jones asked for leniency. Jones asked for leniency because she didn’t want to be separated from her two young children, one of whom is still nursing. Jones’s prison sentence is scheduled to begin on March 11.
So again what’s wrong with these pictures? Plenty. The fact that Belichick is a white male coach and Jones is an African-American woman athlete certainly cannot and should not be swept under the rug when it comes to understanding what goes on in a racist, sexist and homophobic society like the U.S. If a Black NFL head coach had been caught cheating as Belichick was, would he have gotten off that easily? Many would answer absolutely not.
This double standard of meting out punishment based on nationality and gender should be enough grist for the mill to cause a massive outcry among those who can see right through the hypocrisy.
But the circumstances surrounding the case of Marion Jones and also what could eventually happen to Barry Bonds—the Major Baseball League’s home run leader, recently indicted by a federal grand jury over his supposed steroid use—go much, much deeper than the obvious. There are important class issues that either are downplayed or ignored altogether by the mainstream media, including sportscasters and writers.
Athletes, like workers, are commodities
These class issues are tied to capitalism, an economic system of haves and have-nots, that is driven to make profits no matter what the industry—including sports. And just as workers of all nationalities are viewed as expendable commodities to the bosses, athletes, amateur or professional, are also expendable—especially when it comes to owners or college athletic programs.
If an athlete does not perform on a very high or even superhuman level, s/he is susceptible to being cut and then traded to another team, unless permanently injured. Only athletes are capable of generating the billions of dollars in television revenue, season ticket sales, food and liquor concessions and endorsements raked in by their bosses.
Just as workers are forced to compete against each other for a higher wage or even for job security, athletes are also forced to compete against each other. It is not only for the highest salary but also to sign multimillion-dollar contracts with corporations to sell their products to impressionable young people—especially if the athlete wins an Olympic gold medal or is named the most valuable player on a championship team.
And since the “achievements” of an athlete in the U.S. are based on how many medals or titles they can win in a short amount of time, many athletes feel extraordinary pressure to get a “competitive edge” over others, including taking performance-enhancement drugs.
No one is more aware of this dog-eat-dog phenomenon than the holier-than-thou sports media, which pray for and prey on a Marion Jones, a Michael Vick or a Barry Bonds to superexploit. Demonizing talented athletes sells more papers and magazines for the media moguls.
In fact, the sports media love to hold the power of the pen over athletes by telling them in essence, “We can build you up one day and tear you down the next,” especially if they come from poor, oppressed communities or, like Barry Bonds, if they don’t bow down to the media.
In his Oct. 15, 2007, column, “The Fall of Marion Jones, Inc.,” progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin wrote, “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.”
He goes on to say, “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.”
On the one hand, what both Belichick and Jones did was not make the rules but only play by the rules of capitalist competition in order to gain an advantage over their rivals.
A major difference is that while Belichick was all but forgiven because he is privileged, Marion Jones was an easy scapegoat of an inhumane system that will use divide-and-conquer tactics like racism in order to toss aside any human being, gifted or not, as long as its precious profits are not threatened. Most sacred of all are the profits of the pharmaceuticals that produce and promote steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
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