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Week In Sport: A Track Star's Fall From Grace


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Oscar Pistorius remains in prison, the athlete who mesmerized so much of the world last summer when he became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games, has been changed with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Oscar Pistorius has been a hero in South Africa and lionized all over the world as the blade runner.

We're joined now by Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: He's been charged with premeditated murder. We should note, his family's issued a statement saying unequivocally the alleged murder is disputed in the strongest possible terms. Now recognizing that we're looking at this from a distance, what does the case look like to you?

BRYANT: Well, the case itself, I mean, obviously, I can't speak on that. I really have no idea outside of the fact that it's just shame. It's terrible. I feel like - I feel when we deal with these stories with athletes off of the field, it always just reminds me, just brings me back to the fact that we don't know them. We don't know anything about them off of the field.

And it's a very complicated thing. We spend a lot of time wanting the people who give us pleasure to be uncomplicated, and we hold athletes to a different standard that I don't think we hold to entertainers or singers who - you know, writers who are complicated, who live complicated lives. And I feel like when things like this happen, it's almost as if we're shocked when maybe we shouldn't be. Maybe the narrative needs to change and we need to have less of a hero worship.

It's a terrible story. The one thing that I thought of no matter what the story is, whether it's an accident, maybe a burglary as the family is saying, or whether it's a premeditated homicide as the prosecution is saying, no one deserves to die like that.

SIMON: Let me follow up a bit. You know, there's so much. For those of us who love sports, we make some correlation between character and achievement in sports. You know, you errrgh(ph), grit hard determination, play hurt, that's going to pay off at some point. Is that where we begin to make that miscalculation?

BRYANT: No, I think we want that. I think we want that connection. We want that connection to be something that is real because the one thing that we always sell about sports to young people from the beginning is that this is a character-building enterprise, that if you learn teamwork and sportsmanship and hard work and you learn how much you can push yourself and what you're capable of, all of those things are supposed to translate into dignity and morality and clarity and all these other concepts.

And maybe they do. Maybe they do. But that also creates a false narrative, that these people aren't troubled and don't have problems and are not complicated in their own lives, whether we're talking about Ray Lewis or O.J. Simpson or Rae Carruth or Oscar Pistorius. The question comes down to this: how much are we going to link and parallel what they do, their genius, their physical athletic genius, to who they are as people. We can't make that leap. We can't close that gap because we just don't know.

SIMON: Yeah. We want to ask you one question about college basketball because we're a month from Selection Sunday. Just as it looked like Kentucky might sneak back up in the rankings there, their freshman star, Nerlens Noel, tore his ACL in a game against Florida. What does this do to his career? What does it say about college basketball?

BRYANT: Well, I think once again, when we talk about sports, we have a false narrative, and that narrative is that with college basketball that this is a character-building enterprise and that these players are amateurs, when it's a big business, it's a multi-billion dollar business, and this kid tearing his ACL may have cost him a career in the NBA depending on the severity of the injury.

And the NBA doesn't allow the players to go NBA because of their age limit and so I feel awful for him, and luckily he's got some insurance, but I think that once again there has to be a conversation about whether or not it's fair. I think in college basketball, you need to start paying these players. You're treating them as professionals, you're profiting off of them, and when they get hurt you can't just discard them.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, thanks so much, as always.

BRYANT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.