by Erin Riordan
By now everyone has heard about the murder committed by Oscar Pistorius on Valentine’s Day. Pistorius had been fighting with his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp when she locked herself in the bathroom. Pistorius then shot Steenkamp through the bathroom door, killing her. The prosecution claims the murder was premeditated, the defense counters that Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for a burglar and that the murder was a tragic accident. Steenkamp’s murder has grabbed international media attention, with headlines the world over proclaiming Pistorius a “fallen hero,” a once noble and admired athlete fallen from grace.
Pistorius is a world-renowned sprint runner from South Africa who competed in both the Paralympics and the Olympics. Nicknamed Blade Runner, he is famous both for his incredible athletic ability, and because he is the first amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal and the first double-amputee to participate in the Olympics. Pistorius has won dozens of medals and awards, and has $2 million U.S. dollars worth of endorsement deals, with companies including Nike, Oakley, and Thierry Mugler. But all this is falling apart now as Pistorius faces a premeditated murder charge. His sponsors have dropped him, and the International Paralympic Committee and South Africa’s Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee have both announced official stances of neutrality on the issue.
But I think the sports world needs to do more. Violence committed by athletes is by no means a new or surprising issue. Many professional and collegiate athletes have been convicted of sexual assault, and many more face charges that are frequently laughed off or deemed illegitimate, especially at the collegiate level. Even some athletes who are convicted of rape still enjoy successful careers, as in the case of Marlon King, who after serving 18 months for sexual assault charges was released and signed with a new team. The sports world cannot only react to instances of violence and sexual assault when the instances are particularly violent or happen to attract the attention of the international community. We need to take seriously every case involving violence and sexual assault that professional athletes are involved in, and there need to be real consequences for these crimes.
While records and accounts are somewhat murky, it does appear that Pistorius had a history of violence. In 2009 Pistorius was charged with assault against a 19-year-old girl, though a month later charges were dropped. And despite the fact that Steenkamp was murdered with Pistorius’s gun, police also found a bloodied cricket bat in his house that is now considered a key part of the murder investigation. Several confusing reports from Pistorius’s neighbors and police indicate that issues of domestic disturbance were not unique at Pistorius’s residence. While this is by no means a complete picture of Pistorius’s past, and it is difficult to draw any conclusions from events prior to Steenkamp’s murder, this history of ambiguous violence should have given everyone who painted Pistorius a hero pause.
I am not suggesting that Pistorius should have always been painted a monster or violent and abusive, especially with such previously inconclusive evidence, but when choosing to elevate someone to the status of hero, when choosing to make them an icon, I think it is important to be conscious of all elements of their character and their life. We need to be careful whom we present as role models for our children, who we anoint superstars. There is such a wide expanse between hero and villain, and that is where Pistorius should have lived in our minds before he murdered Steenkamp. If we had seen him, and every other athlete, as human rather than as a beyond human super athlete, perhaps we could have recognized his violence sooner, and perhaps Steenkamp’s death would not have come as such a shock.
The world of sports needs to pull its head out of the sand and take account of the behavior of the athletes it places on pedestals. Too much violence is forgiven and granted a free pass in athletics, which only perpetuates violence and sexual assault, and creates a culture where violence is ok. We do not need more athletes like those at Steubenville or the football player at Notre Dame, and so many other high schools and universities, who think it is ok to behave however they want, that there will be no consequences or a price to pay. There is a price, and that price is the lives of women like Elizabeth Seeberg and Reeva Steenkamp, a price that should not be forgotten or ignored or swept under the rug just because it is our heroes and idols who are responsible for these tragedies.