Just about the only thing that was able to catch up with Olympian Marion Jones was the law. Now John Singleton’s new film, “Press Pause,” examines the long, glorious, ultimately tarnished career of the track and field superstar and asks: should she be forgiven? The documentary debuts tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN as part of its “30-for-30” series.
Through interviews with her coaches, teammates, attorney, husband and sportswriters, Singleton takes viewers on the roller-coaster ride which has been Jones’ life. The movie follows her from budding track and basketball star at the University of North Carolina to becoming the first woman to win five medals (three gold, two bronze) at a single Olympics to accusations of doping, lying to federal investigators, imprisonment and finally, comeback. Jones, now age 35, is currently a guard on the Tulsa Shock WNBA team, and a mother of three. Her second autobiography, “On the Right Track,” was recently released by Simon and Schuster.
While Singleton’s portrait of a woman trying to put the pieces of her life back together is compelling, the film shies away from the two lingering questions at the crux of Jones’ story: what role did racism and sexism play in her conviction and is she still not telling the whole truth about her steroid use?
When federal investigators raided the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) in September 2003, files were seized on some forty athletes – including Jones, Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. In addition, a survey conducted by Major League Baseball in 2003 found that 104 of 1200 players tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts later reported that Alex Rodriguez tested positive). In 2005 Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmiero and seven others testified before the House Government Reform Committee about steroid use. The 2007 Mitchell Report named 89 alleged steroid users, including Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miquel Tejada, Eric Gagne, Gary Sheffield, David Justice, Bonds and Giambi.
To date, only Clemens and Bonds have been indicted for perjury. Bonds was convicted in 2007 and will not be tried until 2011. Clemens testified in 2008, wasn’t indicted for perjury until 2010 and his trial is also scheduled for 2011.
Jones admitted lying to federal investigators on October 5, 2007, was sentenced three months later and given the maximum sentence of six months. At her sentencing, Judge Kenneth Karas acknowledged that he was using Jones to send a message. “I want to make [people] realize no one is above the law,” he said. Later, when her cellmate allegedly attacked her in prison and Jones defended herself, she was placed in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, for 48 days, with no television or computer.
After a recent screening of “Press Pause,” Singleton and Jones took questions from the media.
About Clemens and Bonds, Singleton said, “Come on now, it’s just common sense — nothing’s going to happen to any of those guys. Those players will not see the inside of a jail cell. They don’t want to open up a can of worms – be it the IOC, NFL or MLB, be it what’s legal or not legal — going back over the last 30 years. They’re only going to go so far with those people and then they’ll let it taper off.”
When Jones was asked about the MLB players, she said, “It’s a waste of time to be bitter about what’s fair and unfair. It’s against the law to lie to federal investigators and I did it. I own it.”
Singleton, the director of such films as “Boyz n the Hood,” was asked what role he thought racial and gender inequalities played in Jones’ imprisonment. He said, “I can remember her press conference, I was sitting with my daughter, we both were really emotionally affected. The more emotional we got, I stood up and I was angry: ‘why are they doing this to her?’ I was going off, talking about all the baseball controversy and why is this happening to a sister? And then the thing came up with ’30-for-30’…[speaking to Jones]…I just thought we needed to get the story out there, let people hear your real voice.”
We had a chance to speak with Jones individually after the Q&A. She has said that she believes she would have broken records and won medals even without taking steroids. We asked her then, why did she do it? Jones said, “I can trace my problems to relationships in the past; you surround yourself with people because you’re looking for that love. You ignore who people really are. I’ve said before that I was blessed with enormous amount of physical gifts and I probably would have won. But I can’t go back.”
In her book and in person, Jones continues to maintain that when her coaches gave her THG, a performance-enhancing drug in a liquid known as “the clear” for its undetectability in athletes’ urine, she was told it was flaxseed oil. She told us she lied to federal investigators when they showed her “the clear” and asked her if she recognized it or ever took it.
We asked her directly if she knew she was taking THG or if she believed it was flaxseed oil. Jones replied, “It’s on record that I said I was not aware that what I was given was ‘the clear’ rather than flaxseed oil. I went to prison for lying to federal investigators, not taking steroids.”
We asked if she believed the substance she was given was flaxseed oil. “That’s accurate,” she replied.
We also spoke with Jones’ attorney, Rich Nichols, who appears in the film and was present at her investigation. Jones states in her book that Nichols repeatedly advised her to tell the truth to the feds. We asked him what went on inside the investigation room. He said, “She did recognize it as the substance that had been given to her, that she was told was flaxseed oil. She said, ‘no, I don’t recognize it.’ That’s why she was convicted.”
We asked Singleton, a two-time Oscar nominee, why his film did not more directly examine what some see as the racial and gender inequities involved in steroid sentencing. He replied, “Dealing with documentaries is different than narrative films. You can’t be too didactic or it becomes a soapbox. I could have said, ‘what about Roger Clemens?’ in the film. But that’s not the kind of piece I wanted to do.”
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