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When Sports Icons Fall Short

In the wake of a murder charge against legless sprinter Oscar Pistorius, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis and Robert Siegel discuss the elevation of sports stars beyond acclaim for their physical gifts.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the most telling photos from South Africa this week was a worker taking down a billboard featuring Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius' life story was used in advertisements that celebrated triumph over hardship. He's not the sports icon to fall hard. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's talk today about athletes and the other-than-athletic virtues that are attributed to them. On a most material level, Pistorius was sponsored by Nike, and the marketing of goods and athletes implies shaping public perception about those athletes.

FATSIS: Yeah, there's a good article about this by Matthew Futterman in today's Wall Street Journal. Nike's strategy has been pretty simple and brilliant: Find the central narrative in an athlete's life - disability, cancer, race - magnify it and then expand it into other spheres. And the risk has been the same all along, that the athlete won't live up to this hero imagery.

It's been especially stark and then embarrassing in the cases of Pistorius and Lance Armstrong. They were Nike clients, both of them. In one ad, Pistorius said I am the bullet in the chamber. In one of his commercial, Armstrong asked: What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?

The list of people who have failed in sports recently is long: Marion Jones, Ben Jonson, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Joe Paterno, Michael Vick. They were selling one message or another, and then they're found to be less than honorable. We're left to process that.

SIEGEL: But just to be clear here, this isn't only about endorsements and commerce in athletic goods. Long before Nike, Notre Dame was mythologizing the virtues, the human virtues, of football stars.

FATSIS: Grantland Rice.

SIEGEL: Grantland Rice was doing it, as well. So it's older than Nike and Adidas.

FATSIS: Yeah, it goes way back, centuries back. The ancient Greeks revered athletes. You take someone like Theagenes of Thasos, he's said to have won 1,300 or 1,400 competitions, including the Olympics, in boxing; pankration, which is a sort of ancient mixed martial arts; running. There was a bronze statue in his likeness. He was ascribed various healing powers.

Another legendary Greek athlete was Milo of Croton, whom Aristotle compared to Hercules. Milo is believed to have been devoured by wolves, but his death was recast as the unfortunate result of a superhuman act.

SIEGEL: And we're still building statutes, of course. Michael Jordan has one outside of the basketball arena in Chicago. Joe Paterno had one at Penn State until it was removed after the scandal there. But do you think there's any indication that the latest cautionary tales are changing the way that we think about sports figures?

FATSIS: Well, Sports Illustrated devotes the bulk of its current issue to Michael Jordan turning 50, and a lot of it is hagiographic, about his playing career. But there's also this line from the writer Phil Taylor(ph): The younger generation sees Jordan as just as ripe for snarkiness as anyone else.

And that's a very telling line, I think. There's a generation of sports fans who are informed more now by advanced statistics and the sort of candid defrocking of athletes and the sports culture by websites like Deadspin than they are by Nike commercials. And I think that's a good thing. I'd like to think that we're getting smarter about the distinction between athletic accomplishment and personal virtue.

At the very least, you hope that the cycle of stardom and worship and decline at least stops people from naming their kids after athletes.

SIEGEL: But all of this raises the question: Can we still appreciate sports just as well without investing these competitors with any virtues other than being fast, strong, having great aim, whatever it might be that is purely athletic? Those could be 10 bums playing there and I enjoy the game just as much - are we capable of that?

FATSIS: Yeah, how do we not become completely cynical about sports is what I think it comes down to. I think the healthiest approach is to remember that sports are of the moment and that our brains do this naturally when we're watching. I watched LeBron James and Kobe Bryant exchange dunks last night, and I wasn't cynical at all. I just saw two guys doing unfathomable physical things, and I was grateful that I could see it, and I didn't ascribe to them any personal values beyond their ability to play basketball extremely well right at that moment.

Sports have been filled with scoundrels forever. We're going to learn things after the fact about our athletes that leave us with distaste in our mouth. But we need to get back to that enjoyment of sports as it happens.

SIEGEL: Have a great weekend watching lots of people of moderate virtue compete in sports, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Stefan Fatsis, who talks with us most Fridays about sports and the business of sports. And you can hear more of him on slate.com's sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen.

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SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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