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Oscar Pistorius and the court of public opinion

As quickly as a public figure is able to achieve a place in public discourse, the 24-hour news cycle ensures that their reputation can be destroyed with a single story. What does this say about us, and the way we respond to allegations about those we admire?


You could say that the Court of Public Opinion is the most vicious and unforgiving portion of our society. We are always ready to build celebrities up and place them on a pedestal while viewing them as significant members of our culture. And once we have raised them to those great heights, we are just as prepared to tear them down (or watch as they are torn down) at a moment's notice, and without shedding a tear.

I am afraid this will happen, if it's not happening already, with Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner." But before I get into the latest happenings, let's briefly rewind.

Pistorius made sport history last year by competing in both the 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Arguments were heated before the Olympic Games about whether Pistorius should be allowed to race in both events. I have been quite vocal about my thoughts on this (as you can read here), with my main argument focused on the fact that the first impulse of sports should be to include, not exclude:

Sports are about opportunities and challenges for anyone who can participate. No one should be told they can't play or run just because of some presumed disadvantage ... Why would "we," or even should "we," tell someone NO just because "we" think it's not right? Oscar Pistorius raced, proved he could make time, and qualified. Simple as that.

When Pistorius qualified for both Olympic Games, his welcome was mixed and his performances were criticized. Yes, he caused his own controversy by suggesting the Brazilian winner had an unfair advantage (cue the irony police), but in the end, after both Games were over Pistorius was duly entered into the history books for his achievements.

Now, fast forward to Valentine's Day 2013 in South Africa. According to reports, Oscar Pistorius is under investigation for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkemp. Early news is suggesting self-defense, claiming she was an intruder. This morning, some media are reporting previous domestic abuse by Pistorius with the possibility of the shooting being premeditated. Nothing official was released, so news outlets began their expected task of assuming.

We don't know what happened, and we may not know what happened for a few days, if ever. But what we do know is that the words murder and Oscar Pistorius are now being used in the same sentence, all over the world, which usually leads to the summary judgment of public opinion finding him guilty.

Will he survive this?

We live in a very forgiving society, one that trumpets the idea that it's acceptable to do whatever it takes to get what you want, at any cost. We forgive presidents and politicians who cheat and lie. We forgive musical artists who cheat and lie. We forgive athletes who cheat and lie. We forgive doctors who cheat and lie. We forgive actors who lie and cheat.

But murder? Do we have it in us to forgive such a destructive and ultimate act?

OJ Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of Nicole Simpson, but there is still a dark cloud hanging over him, not to mention the Nevada prison cell that surrounds him. Ray Lewis was accused of murder, charges were dropped, and now he is a celebrated two-time Super Bowl Champion. Two examples, two different outcomes. While our world frequently forgives, it's anything but clear how this situation in Pretoria will turn out.

But one thing is guaranteed: there are two paths here for Pistorius, hero or villian. And maybe because he isn't an American idol and a household name in our country, this incident won't mean much to us. But with the public already hearing his name with the allegations, we have already labeled him guilty, and that's a very difficult label to reverse.