Commentary

Implications of sentence extend beyond Marion Jones

Updated: January 11, 2008, 6:00 PM ET
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- First comes the bombshell -- a little-known trainer alleging that his star client set revered records while on steroids.

Then comes the fallout, as the star files a defamation suit, insisting it's all a pack of lies.

Finally, with the truth in question, comes Congress, ordering hearings.

Roger Clemens and Marion Jones might not have much in common, but they share that scenario. And on Friday, both Jones and Clemens -- not to mention Barry Bonds, who awaits trial on perjury charges -- got an earful from a federal judge about athletes who lie to cover up drug use.

U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Karas, a moralist with a gavel full of common sense, was talking to Jones, but he was speaking past her, too.

[+] EnlargeMarion Jones
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowLeniency was not the order of the day for Marion Jones-Thompson when a judge sentenced her to six months in a federal prison.
"People live with their choices," he said as he sentenced Jones to six months in prison, the maximum under the guidelines, for lying about her use of steroids and involvement in a check-fraud scam. "The choice not to play by the rules was compounded by the choice to break the law."

Jones' attorneys had asked for probation, echoing the "move on" speech that former Sen. George Mitchell gave when he released his report in baseball last month and urged all of those who'd made mistakes to move on with their lives.

Sitting in the front row of the gallery, sneaking glances at the fallen track star as Karas spoke, was the IRS agent whom she was charged with lying to, Jeff Novitzky. On Thursday, Novitzky also managed to drop in on Clemens' ex-trainer, Brian McNamee.

It's striking how similar the two cases are. In 2004, Victor Conte claimed in an ESPN The Magazine story that he'd injected Jones with growth hormone in a California hotel. Afterwards, she filed a $25 million libel suit. As Congress dug ever deeper into the BALCO affair, she continued to insist she'd been painfully wronged.

Compare that to McNamee, who told the Mitchell Commission that he repeatedly injected Clemens with testosterone and growth hormone. Clemens has filed a suit for defamation and is being called to testify before Congress next month.

Jones was laid low by one too many lies, and a web that closed around her. So far, Clemens hasn't been put under oath, and he's pitching a tie game of back-and-forth accusations with McNamee.

But Friday was a day of warnings.

Jones' attorneys tried to portray her decision to come clean last October as an epic act of contrition. "She stepped up to the plate," F. Hill Allen of Raleigh, N.C., said in an unfortunately mixed metaphor.

But Karas was unmoved by her sudden conversion, especially after prosecutors pointed out that she didn't suddenly awake with an urge to cleanse her conscience.

Two years after she lied to Novitzky about her drug use, she did the same thing with New York prosecutors who were probing the financial shenanigans of her ex-lover, Tim Montgomery. Just days before she ultimately admitted her lies, she'd been warned that she was perilously close to being charged criminally. (Also involved was one of her coaches, Steve Riddick. Karas sentenced him to 63 months in prison later Friday.)

"I don't think the criminal conduct can be written off as a one-time mistake," Karas said.

The youthful-looking judge, who made several references to kids, also seemed irritated by the story Jones (who now uses the married name Jones-Thompson), told during her plea in October. Back then, she insisted that she didn't realize she'd been on banned drugs in Sydney until two years after she split with her coach, Trevor Graham, and saw that her performance had trailed off.

"I'm sorry to say, I do have doubts about the truthfulness of the entirety of her statement," he said.

Allen tried softening the judge by painting his client as a loving mother.

"She clothes them. She bathes them. She's still nursing her infant," he said. When Jones rose to speak, she broke down, sobbing, "I ask you to be as merciful as a human being can be."

Karas, if not unmoved, was not persuaded. "She made the decision to have herself removed from her children," he told the court.

A lot of things are happening quickly right now. Graham, Jones' ex-coach, is going to go on trial soon, also for lying to federal agents. And another of Graham's former clients, Justin Gatlin, secretly tape recorded at least 10 phone calls with him to help Novitzky.

Despite his cooperation, Gatlin was hit with a four-year ban from competition. Now, despite her last-minute conversion and promise to fight for drug-free sports, Jones will serve six months in a federal prison.

The message that Karas sent from his courtroom Friday was loud and clear, and should be heard in Houston and San Francisco. It's not a game anymore.

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, writes extensively about doping in sports in his new book, "Steroid Nation," available here.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"

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