Marion Jones earned five gold medals in track at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Later, in disgrace, she admitted to illegal steroid use, pled guilty to charges of lying to federal agents and spent six months in prison. Tearfully expressing regret at her guilt, she uttered these words, “I have betrayed your trust.”
I recently watched her admit to illegal activity and saw her painfully reveal how she had brought such trouble upon herself. She forfeited her Olympic medals, bringing shame to herself, her family, friends and her country. She served her sentence and briefly returned at age 34 to play professional basketball. Her story is a lesson in humility for disgraced public figures who also betrayed public trust.
Some politicians today have a perverse tendency to betray public trust through improper conduct, and after a self-imposed hiatus, believe they deserve a “second chance” to again be public servants. Former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, a serial exhibitionist, craves public attention, in spite of recent revelations that he re-offended by sending more lewd texts of himself to others. Former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a recidivist prostitution consumer, resigned in disgrace from New York’s governorship, but now again seeks public office. Disgraced former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (the “hiker”) shrewdly played the “second chance” card and was reelected this year to his old Congressional seat. Former U.S. Representative Bob Filner, now San Diego’s mayor, facing female ex-staffers’ accusations, has admitted to being controlled by internal demons such that he can’t resist groping women.
The problem with these four guilty men is that they lack the character of Marion Jones — to simply admit their shortcomings, with contrition and consequence, and respectably serve as examples of how to gracefully withdraw from public life. With low approval ratings of public officials, one would think that these disgraced men would feel obliged to try to improve public respect for government service by exiting the public stage. But no — they deem themselves too important.
Marion Jones did her prison time and then trained for a new athletic challenge — professional women’s basketball. She played for the Tulsa Shock for a couple of years before retiring, but frequently tells her compelling history to students, urging them never to cheat and to always be honest.
Marion Jones’ blueprint for humbly recovering from scandal and public humiliation is remarkable, but other examples also show how best to deal with adversity, even when it’s not self-imposed.
Veterans of America’s wars routinely returned home scarred and blemished, yet were quiet about their experiences, instead thankful for having done their duty for a grateful nation. A new book by Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat, chronicles another story of grace overcoming adversity. It’s the story of the triumphant University of Washington crew team that won Olympic gold against all odds in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. One of the boys featured, Joe Rantz, grew up in Sequim and spent years in Eastern Washington and North Idaho as part of a family struggling to survive the 1930s’ Great Depression. Joe Rantz’s mother died of cancer when he was little. Abandoned by his stepmother and father and their young children when Joe was only 15, he survived — alone — in the empty family home in Sequim, catching and selling fish, working in the woods and doing other odd jobs just to survive, though surviving provided no relief to the aching loneliness of a young boy completely on his own.
Yet he excelled in school and was accepted at the University of Washington, where he made the men’s crew team. Tall, tough and rangy, Joe Rantz became part of a crew team that went on to compete against — and defeat — the best crew teams in the world. Crewing is a sport that stresses the legs, arms, shoulders and lungs in a symphony of athletic coordination with eight rowers, all of whom must pull oars at the same intensity and rhythm in order to move the boat quickly over a 2,000-meter course. Big, strong, intense, coordinated people row crew.
Winning gold in 1936 in front of Adolf Hitler was a colossal feat, yet Joe Rantz and his teammates, all ordinary boys with extraordinary physical gifts, had something else that made them golden. They had character, the kind that subsumes the self to a greater cause, admitting shortcomings with honesty, like Marion Jones, and then earning the respect they’re due.
Disgraced public officials should take note.