News & Politics

Oscar Pistorius Accused of Murdering His Girlfriend -- Latest Reminder That Athletes Don't Always Make for Good Role Models

A common storyline for male athletes, even as society continues to revere them for their athletic talent if not for their moral fiber.

A South African track star was arrested and charged with murdering his girlfriend today, shining new light on violence against women on the part of athletes.

The runner, Oscar Pistorius, is one of the most celebrated athletes in South Africa. He won the gold metal for the 100-meter sprint at last year’s Paralympic Games and is the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, where he was dubbed the 'bladerunner' and inspired many.

Pistorius's rise to fame as a double-amputee sprinter was widely regarded as a moral and phsyical triumph--a reputation tarnished only slightly when he criticized a fellow runner who beat him in the 200-meter sprint at the most recently Paralympic Games. His trajectory is similar to that of Lance Armstrong: internationally beloved for overcoming great physical adversity, only to end in a firestorm of disgrace.

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This narrative arch seems to be an ever more common storyline for collegiate and professional male athletes, even as society continues to revere them for their athletic talent if not for their moral fiber. 

The problem goes beyond violence. Sex scandals involving male student-athletes also abound; studies show that, on college campuses, nearly 20 percent of all sexual assaults and 35 percent of domestic violence incidents are perpetrated by male athletes. That’s despite the fact that male athletes comprise a mere 3.3 percent of the student population.

At the professional level, the stories are at least as disturbing. Last year, when a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself, the story made national headlines. But that incident was simply the tip of the iceberg. A Slate journalist foundthat 21 NFL teams had a player on roster who had been accused that very year of sexual assault or domestic violence. Her conclusion? “The NFL has a serious domestic violence problem.”

To be fair, non-athletes are not exempt from terrible acts of violence against women. Even Valentine’s Day violence isn’t as rare as some would hope. Within the last few years,one man chopped up his wife into little pieces and scattered her body throughout the woods near their Michigan home; another shot his former girlfriend five times; a third stabbed an old girlfriend to death; a fourth bashed his wife’s head in.

Still, violence enacted by male athletes--particularly national heroes like Pistorius--poses a particularly vexing problem for a society that seems to fall in love with all the wrong people, almost as if our tabloid culture itself suffers from battered women’s syndrome. Or maybe the fawning and obsessing of the 24-hour new cycle’s glow itself contributes to these bursts of male aggression, creating the invincibility complex that afflicts many “great” male celebrities. The DSK syndrome, one could call it. 

Whatever it is, we should all invest in finding some better male role models--both to create a culture that keeps women safe, and to model healthy male sexuality for the next generation.


Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.