Saturday, October 06, 2007

Margin Notes: The Marion Jones Letter

Before appearing in U.S. federal court on Friday, sprinter Marion Jones penned a 1,700 word letter to family and friends....
Dear family and close friends, I hope this letter finds all of you well. I know some of you must be wondering where the pictures are that I so often attach to my emails. Unfortunately, this is a much different type of letter. I write this letter to all of you for a few reasons. The first is simply because I love you all. Some things will be happening in the next week that I want you all to know about from me FIRST. You deserve this because you have been there for me from the very beginning. You have supported me throughout the many struggles that I have had in my life and continue to do so to this day. You deserve to hear about Marion from Marion and not from the USA Today or CNN.
Jones' voice may be heard by her friends, but it's barely a whisper to the rest of us. A Google search produces nearly 3,000 news stories.
The second reason is because I finally want to shed much baggage that has been tearing me down for a long time. I want to share with you all my humanness. The fact that I have made mistakes in my life, made bad decisions, and have carried a great amount of pain and hurt throughout my life. I want you all to understand that I have constructed, what I thought, was this impenetrable wall, to protect me from hurtful and harmful people and things. In doing this I, unfortunately, have distanced myself from loved ones and made myself impossible, at times, to connect with. I want you all to know that I sincerely apologize for this. One day soon, I hope you will understand the reason for me having such behavior. I am not trying to justify it, but simply want you all to have a better understanding of why I have done certain things in my life. Having said this, I realize the need to be up front and honest with you about several things that have transpired in my life. I will not candy coat the following statements, as I have done this and tapped around the truth for too long.
Tapped around the truth is an understatement. She vigorously defended then-husband CJ Hunter when he tested positive during the Sydney Olympics, and stood by husband number two, Tim Montgomery, when he was banned following the BALCO investigation. And unlike many others, Jones also made repeated, unqualified denials about her own use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). And she even launched a defamation lawsuit against BALCO's Victor Conte, after he said in a telvision interview that Jones was a drug cheat. The suit was settled before trial.
As many of you know I am not one for a lot of small talk so I will get right to the crux of this letter. On October 5th, 2007, I plan to plead guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents. I will travel to New York on Friday, October 5th, where my mom will meet me, and return home to Austin on the following afternoon. I will now try and explain the details of all this to you all.
As she will shortly explain, the federal charges are only tenuously connected to the PEDs. Like Martha Stewart, Jones has been accused of lying to federal agents. The contents of the interview in which she lied are irrelevant. Count me as a skeptic when it comes to this technique of law enforcement (it's in the same category as charging a suspect with conspiracy, rather than the underlying crime, or inventing novel extensions of securities laws to capture otherwise legal behaviour).
In 1999, my track coach Trevor Graham provided me with some nutritional supplements. There is one in particular that he called "flaxseed oil." He advised me to take this supplement by placing a few drops under my tongue and then swallow. He told me that it was necessary to add this to my diet so that I could be in peak running shape. I, unfortunately, never asked him any questions about it. I trusted him and never thought for one second that he would jeopardize my career, nor his own. He told me to administer it by placing a few drops under my tongue for a few seconds and then to swallow. He supplied me this for the 1999 and 2000 seasons. In 2001, I noticed a change in how my body felt, how I was able to recover and my strength level. I felt generally weaker in my entire training routine. At that time I attributed the noticeable change to being burnt out from the Olympics, etc. It was not until after I left Trevor at the end of 2002 that I began to wonder to my self whether or not Trevor had given me something to enhance my performance. Looking back in hindsight, red flags should have been raised in my head when he told me not to tell anyone about our workouts or supplementation program. At that time my rationale was, well it makes sense not to give out any information about what we do, why give my competitors any edge.
There's an interesting consistency between the stories told by BALCO clients. The drug -- THG -- was administered orally, and the recipients were apparently told it was flaxseed oil or 'the clear.' Of course, Jones is not just asking us to believe that she was unaware the "flaxseed oil" was really a steroid -- she's also asking us to extend our suspension of disbelief further: that she never asked more probing questions, that the secrecy demand didn't raise her suspicions, that she only noticed the impact of the drug after she stopped taking it, and that her marriages to two proven steroid users were a coincidence. In her statement to the court on Friday, she admitted that she used THG from September 2000 until July 2001, but that it was only "By November 2003, I realized that what Graham had given to me was a performance enhancing drug."
In 2003, I was interviewed by federal agents regarding the Balco scandal. For those of you that do not know, Balco was the name of a company that provided nutritional supplements and steroids to athletes through its owner Victor Conte. You can just Google it, if you need further explanation. In that interview, agents asked me several questions regarding my involvement, if any, with Balco or Victor Conte. There are two questions, in particular, that have gotten me into part of the trouble that I am involved in today. Agents asked me if I had ever seen this substance called the "clear.", and they then showed it to me. Up to this point I had heard about this steroid called the "clear," but had never seen it, or so I thought. It was the brain child of Victor Conte. When shown the substance I recognized it immediately as the supplement that Trevor Graham had given me and had referred to as "flaxseed oil," and knew at that moment that I had taken it for nearly 2 years. I panicked and told the agents that I had never seen the substance before. This was a lie. I indeed had seen it before but was introduced to it under a different name.
This passage contains my favourite line -- "You can just Google it," -- as well as the one I find most believable: "I panicked." This is Jones at her most sympathetic. Is there anyone who wouldn't panic when being interviewed by federal agents? Especially knowing that any slip-up, whether intentional or unintentional, might later be prosecuted?
The agents concluded the interview by asking me if I had ever taken a performance enhancing drug, or PED, as I will refer to it the rest of the letter. I told them that I had never taken a PED in my career. Prior to this interview, before seeing the "clear" I could have honestly said and did, that I never knowingly took any banned substances. But once they showed me the "clear" and told me that it was indeed a PED, I knew that what I had taken and been given was a banned substance and I lied about it. I lied for a few reasons. I lied because I panicked. I lied to protect my coach at the time. I lied to protect all that I had worked so very hard for in my life and career. And lastly, I lied to protect myself. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I made the decision to break the law and have to take full responsibly for doing so. All of this was after my attorneys had specifically told me several times the need to be totally truthful with the agents. That will be the first count that I will plead guilty to on Friday. As you can all imagine, the story will be front page news, and I want you all, as I have stated in the beginning of this letter, to have heard the truth from me.
Jones veers from her most to least believable and back again in an instant. "I lied" and "I'm sorry" are two of the most powerful phrases in our language. They are rarely used, and even when used are often qualified to the point of meaninglessness ("I'm sorry if you feel hurt" being the worst offender). Here Jones repeats the admission "I lied" and she tells us her motivation -- to protect herself, her reputation and those close to her, and because she panicked. This would be more effective if it wasn't again paired with the claim that it was only at that moment, in the interview, that she realized the 'flaxseed oil' was the same as 'the clear' and was therefore a steroid.
Regarding the second count of lying to a federal agent….At the beginning of 2006 I met with prosecutors in New York regarding a check fraud and check counterfeiting scheme they had been investigating. They had called me in because a $25,000.00 check had been deposited into my account in 2005, and apparently it was one of the counterfeit checks. I was asked if I knew anything about the check. I told the prosecutors no. This was a lie! The facts are these. Tim Montgomery, Monty's biological father, gave me the check in 2005 and told me that it was from the sale of a refurbished vehicle that he owned and it would be towards partial repayment of $50,000.00 which I loaned him for attorney expenses back in 2004. The government believes that I knew about the check fraud scheme from the beginning and that I knew that the check was counterfeit. This is not the case.

Once again I panicked. I lied because I wanted to protect Monty's biological father. Although my relationship had ended, I did not want to be the one responsible for putting him in jail or getting him in trouble. And lastly, I wanted to protect myself. I did not want my name associated with this mess. I wanted to stay as far away from it as possible. And so I lied. I am not giving excuses for what I have done. I just want you to understand, even if it is only slightly, my bizarre reasoning behind lying to a federal agent, for the second time.
Her reasons are bizarre and so are the circumstances. What a nightmare Jones' life has become. News accounts suggest she's jobless, out of money, about to be stripped of her Olympic medals and up for a jail sentence following the guilty plea. According to the Star, "The $2.5 million dream house in Chapel Hill, N.C., is gone. So is the house Jones bought for her mother.In court papers, Jones claims to have 'total liquid assets throughout the world of about $2,000.'" And now she's tied up with an ex-husband's check kiting scheme.
This brings us to the present. Both the Northern District of California and the Southern District of New York cases will be presided over by one Judge in New York. They call this a global resolution. The sentencing will be held in approximately 3 months, or sometime at the beginning of January. The sentencing guideline for an offense such as this is 0-6 months in jail. Although it is extremely hard to fathom being away from my family for any length of time, I have to put the rest in God's hands and pray that this horrible chapter in my life, be resolved as soon as possible. I wanted you to know this and not be surprised when you pick up the paper or turn on the computer within the next week. You deserve more than that.

The next several months will be very difficult for me and my family, and all of you as well. With all of this happening though I want you to know that I feel a huge relief already being lifted as I will finally be able to tell the truth, as hard as it might be . I want to apologize to you all for all of this. I am sorry for putting you all through this after you have been there for me through everything. I want to apologize to you, in advance, for the questions that you will be asked about me and about your relationships with me. And lastly, I am sorry for disappointing you all, in so many ways. My intent was never to hurt any of you.

I hope that one day I will be able to share with you, and the world, my struggles with certain things in my life. And in addition use my story to help direct, motivate, and possibly even inspire young people to make better decisions in their lives. Please keep me in your prayers. Love, Marion
Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 6 months. Peter Ueberroth has called for her to turn in the medals before they're taken away. And again, her use of an unqualified "I'm sorry" is powerful. But I can only assume her hope to one day share her "struggles" with us means a book deal is on the way.

One of the claims made by those who want PED using athletes to come forward and confess is that confession will bring absolution and understanding. 'If only they'd tell the truth, we'd forgive them,' the thinking goes.

There is little reason to believe this claim. The head of the IAAF has called Jones "one of the biggest frauds in sporting history." Fellow competitors have declared themselves pleased, and the head of US track and field, no doubt thinking of Jones' colleagues on the relay team, has said that "her fellow competitors, teammates and the sport are paying the price for her mistakes."

In a curious turn, Dick Pound has declared that it will be "disagreeable" to see Jones stripped of her medals -- but only because suspended doper Katerina Thanou will be one of the beneficiaries.

Some have been kind. UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell has said that "We love her, we care about her, we support her and we will do whatever we can do to help," and UNC track coach Dennis Craddock offered that "Marion is a good person, but she made some bad decisions." Her former coach Steve Riddick said that "I have my own cross to bear, and I wish I could bear her cross, too."

The most unfortunate defence has been from Victor Conte. "Those who have made the majority of the money from Olympic as well as professional sport must also take responsibility for the drug culture that exists...In a sense, Marion Jones is a victim of a corrupt system that has existed for decades." Given that Conte played a large part in that system, and made plenty of money doing so, his condemnations are disingenuous.

Conte did say one thing that I could agree with, and perhaps that's where I'll close: "Marion is no different than many others who have done the same but were able to easily beat the inept anti-doping system in place."

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