Note: This story appears in the May 30th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
ABOUT 100 TEENS are chattering and fidgeting in the
bleachers at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club in Seattle when a
video of Marion Jones' free fall into hell starts playing on the big
screen before them. The former track star-turned-WNBA guard watches
from outside, through the gym's glass windows, as the worst scenes of
her life play out for her mostly black and Latino audience: Jones
denying using performance
enhancers, the tearful confession on the courthouse steps, getting
grilled by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. When the video is
over three minutes later, the expression in Jones' eyes is so grave
that she looks like she's about to walk into a wake. But she summons a
smile and strides up to the podium.
"About 10 years ago, I was on top of my game," Jones, 35, tells the
assembled. "I was a superstar athlete, on the cover of magazines like
Vogue, Time and Sports Illustrated." Some of the
teens are still chitchatting, but Jones presses on, and
by the time she mentions that she was making millions and meeting
presidents and celebrities, the kids are nearly silent. "Never in a
thousand years would I have guessed that I would have gone to prison,"
she says. She then reveals that the 49 days she spent in solitary
confinement -- punishment for a fight with another inmate -- nearly
broke her. Gasps fill the air.
These were her darkest days, when she served six months at a
federal prison in Fort Worth,
in 2008, for lying to federal investigators about her PED use and for
her role in a check fraud scheme. Her sentence included 800 hours of
community service, and she's turned that
court-mandated commitment into a full-blown mission, traveling the
country and reciting her story to schools, churches and groups like
the one gathered before her now.
Take a Break, the name of Jones' community-outreach program, is
also a refrain in her tale. The message: Pause to consider
consequences before making a tough decision. Or, you know, check
yourself before you wreck yourself. "It's far easier to make good
choices in your life if you hang out with people who are making good
choices in theirs," she says. "Look to your left." She waits. "Now
look to your right. Are they always complaining? Are they always
getting in trouble?"
Uncomfortable giggles fill up the room,
followed by contemplative faces. Jones' message is sinking in.
TO MANY FANS, community service is a get-out-of-jail-free
card for the privileged that the rest of us can't afford. Saints
tackle Shaun Rogers,
arrested in April of last year for having a loaded .45 in his carry-on
at Cleveland's airport, got a
10-hour weapons course and 40 hours of community service. Colts punter
Pat McAfee received eight hours of community service after being
arrested for public intoxication in October.
NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger: 24 hours of community
service, 18 months of unsupervised
probation, a 60-day suspended sentence and a $100 fine plus court
costs after pleading no-
contest to DWI charges in October 2009.
Then there's Donte' Stallworth, the Ravens wideout, whose plea
bargain in June 2009 for DUI manslaughter became a lightning rod for
celebrity justice. He pleaded guilty, paid an
undisclosed amount of money to the victim's family and got 30 days in
jail (he served 24), two years of house arrest, eight years'
probation, random drug testing, a lifetime driver's license
suspension, $5,000 in mandatory donations to charities and 1,000 hours
of community service. Given that he was facing 15 years in prison
without any deal, many thought the NFL star got off easy. "The public
looks at cases like these as a corruption of justice," says Chris
Uggen, a criminologist at the University of Minnesota. "It offends our
sensibilities because we feel the law should be applied to all
The reality of these cases, though, is far more complex. Community
service is one of the most mysterious aspects of the U.S. justice
system. Sentences depend on multiple factors, including state law,
prior criminal history, the sentencing philosophy of the judge and the
offense itself. "If you looked at 100 cases," says Richard Lapchick, a
longtime expert on social issues in sports at the University of
Central Florida, "there'd probably be 50 different applications of
what community service meant."
Adding to the confusion, in the aftermath of
a sentence the details of actual service often go unreported, and not
always due to the media's lack of interest. Some athletes simply
eager to promote their attempt at atonement, since doing so reminds
the public of the offense. "Maybe they're afraid of being defined by
that mistake," says Jones, who lives in Austin with her husband,
former sprinter Obadele Thompson, and three children. "By
disappearing, perhaps you're thinking it'll fade from
Stallworth knows better, knows he'll forever be
linked to his crime in some folks' minds, no matter how he approaches
his service. He says he's completed about 150 hours so far by filming
a PSA, working with the Special Olympics and helping at Alonzo
Mourning's youth center. The receiver acknowledges that he feels a
sense of purpose in speaking about drinking and driving. "When I speak
to the kids about making the most of second chances and persevering
difficult times, I feel that my story can validate that for them," he
says. "The fact that I'm a
professional athlete gets their attention."
Maybe you think Stallworth is truly making amends. Maybe you think
that if he's not in jail, he should be doing something a lot tougher
than giving speeches, like cleaning trash on the side of a highway.
Either way, this debate is nothing new. In the 45 years since
community service was first introduced in an Alameda, Calif.,
courtroom -- as an alternative to putting traffic violators into
overcrowded jails -- legal experts have been arguing about what its
goals should be. Should community service punish? Act as a
deterrent? Rehabilitate? All of the above? "You don't want super easy
and meaningless community service, nor do you want service that's
super hard, humiliating or demeaning," says Gordon Bazemore, director
of the Community Justice
Institute at Florida Atlantic University. "Then they're just saying,
Oh god, only 20 more hours and I'll be done."
One sentencing strategy gaining currency in some courts is
restorative justice. That's when the community service assigned is
related to the victim and the crime committed. Imagine if instead of
going to jail, Michael Vick assisted for two years in a vet emergency
room, or helped nurse his damaged dogs back to health. The idea is
that he still gets punished while his victims, directly or indirectly,
benefit from the punishment. When offenders are engaged in their
service, their self-esteem is built up, as is their connection to the
community -- all of which helps prevent recidivism.
Minnesota judge Kevin Burke, who doled out 30 hours of helping alcohol
abusers at a detox facility to running back
Moe Williams -- one of the Vikings from the
infamous "Love Boat" incident in 2005 -- buys into the idea. "There's
a benefit to other people, and that's better than just locking you in
a room and saying, Okay, now you've been in jail."
Still, in our legal system, where punishment rather than
restitution remains the dominant philosophy, restorative justice is
more ideal than typical practice. "I think restorative justice makes
sense," says Burke.
judiciary is an inherently conservative profession. We're not readily
open to change."
Some offenders, though, are more than open.
COMMUNITY SERVICE HAS had many different meanings for Jones.
At the height of her stardom, it was voluntary. The Marion Jones
Foundation, now defunct, raised funds for sports complexes in Belize,
her mother's native country. But Jones admits that she wasn't
personally involved in
the day-to-day operations. "It was very loose," she says. "I believed
in it, but to be honest, that aspect of service really wasn't the most
important thing to me at that time. It was all about winning races,
running fast, making money and people telling you that you're great."
When Jones was sentenced in 2008, she had some say in the type of
service she performed. But she was under close scrutiny. "I had to run
everything by my probation officer, who always consulted her boss
because I was a public figure," Jones says. "They didn't want me doing
something that might make the probation department look bad." At
first, the athlete logged hours mentoring at junior high and high
Dallas and filming a PSA about good decision-making. Over time she
turned her speaking
engagements into the Take a Break program. At the end
of the two years it took to complete her 800-hour obligation, Jones
realized she wanted to continue the work. "My goal is to transform the
lives of young people," she says.
There are today and always will be people who don't buy her "I
didn't know what I was taking" explanation for her steroids use, folks
who wish she would just admit she was trying to get an edge. There
will always be those who feel that her 2010 confessional-toned book,
On the Right Track, was just an attempt to put money into her bank
account, and that Take a Break is more image
rehab than Good Samaritanism. Jones knows she won't ever do right
again in some eyes. So all she can do, she says, is focus on the
positive. "Doing this is absolutely part of a healing process," she
says. "There are days when I wake up and the first thing I think about
is, [whispering] Marion. Why? Why did you ... ? And then I pull myself
up and come to an event or go and speak. People sometimes come up and
just hug me. When I get that, it's like, Okay, that's my energy boost.
That's what I needed today."
These days, Jones is training for her second season with the Tulsa
Shock, while her advisory team is working on securing sponsors to
create a larger platform for Take a Break. By expanding the program's
reach, Jones is hoping to remind even more kids that no matter the
second chance is within reach. That's the bigger message throughout
her speech to the Boys & Girls club.
"Whenever you mess up in your life -- and you will at some point in
your life -- don't quit," she says. "Don't give up. Don't be defined
by your mistakes."
When Jones wraps up her talk, the kids give her a raucous round of
applause. She hangs out for a bit afterward, fielding thank-yous and
exchanging embraces with her newfound fans. The emotion expressed in
her eyes now might fairly be described as gratefulness.
Carmen Renee Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.