Famous athletes and dead women

Male athletes engaging in sociopathic behaviour seem to be confusing violent crime for a “socially acceptable norm”.

File photo of Oscar Pistorius and his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in Johannesburg
The murder of Reeva Steenkamp is particularly tragic because Oscar Pistorius' "success and achievements were an inspiration to disabled children around the world" [Reuters]

The Pistorius case is not the first time we hear about a famous athlete killing his wife or girlfriend. But it is still shocking each time. Many of us remember one of the most infamous cases in recent history, the widely publicised trial of former athlete OJ Simpson, who was charged with murdering his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. 

The televised helicopter shot of OJ’s white Ford Bronco driving down the highway in a low speed cop chase is a much too familiar scene. The almost unbelievable “not guilty” verdict came as a shock given the overwhelming indication of Simpson’s guilt that included even DNA evidence. 

And how about World Champion Wrestler Chris Benoit who killed his wife Nancy Benoit and seven-year-old son Daniel before hanging himself in a two-day killing frenzy in his home? The media coverage of the case focused on his mental instability caused by his steroid use, leading to discussions about drug use in competitive athletes. 

What was being questioned was not the show of aggressive masculinity, the type of behaviour that is encouraged and drilled into competitive male athletes, especially wrestlers, but his mental disturbance allegedly brought upon by medications. 

In another murder-suicide case, Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher shot his 22-year-old girlfriend Kassandra Perkins to death only a couple of weeks after she had given birth to their child. He then drove off in his car and shot himself in the head. 

Then there is the grotesque criminality of Rae Carruth, an NFL player who hired a hitman to kill his 8-month pregnant girlfriend Cherica Adams because she had refused to abort their child. After the shooting, Adams died in the hospital a month after miraculously giving birth to their child Chancellor Lee Adams. Today, their son has cerebral palsy and is bound to a wheelchair due to the “loss of blood and oxygen to his brain” during the shooting. 

In Brazil, there was the gory case of Bruno Fernandes, the football player, who had an extra-marital relationship with Eliza Samudio who had become pregnant with his child. Fernandes, worried about the damage to his public image, hired members of his family and some friends to kidnap Samudio and execute her. According to police reports, she was strangled to death, “her body cut up and parts were fed to dogs”. 

These cases are just a few of many incidents of athletes using extreme violence against their female partners, most of them involving aggravated assault, battery and murder. The pattern is so disturbing and pronounced that it requires critical examination. 

The world questions Pistorius’ innocence 

On February 14, the world’s most famous paralympian athlete, Oscar Pistorius, shot and killed his 30-year-old model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through a closed bathroom door in their home.

 South African court grants Pistorius bail

The South African sprint runner was the first paralympian athlete ever to compete in an able-bodied race in the 2012 London Olympics. 

Pistorius says he believed he was “shooting at an intruder“. It is a complicated case, as the public will probably never know the whole truth given that the only witness left from the night of the murder is Pistorius himself. 

The case is particularly tragic since Pistorius’ success and achievements were an inspiration to disabled children around the world. 

Just days before her death, Steenkamp had spoken out about violence against women in South Africa and condemned the brutal gang-rape and death of 17-year-old Anene Booysen. 

In a haunting message a few days before her death, Steenkamp wrote on her Twitter page: “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals.” 

The detectives who arrived at the murder scene contended that Pistorius’ account of “shooting at a burglar was implausible”. Pistorius may or may not have meant to kill his girlfriend. Still the case does not avoid being yet another “athlete gone wild” story.  

We only need to take account of Pistorius’ infatuation with guns to notice his problematic relationship with violence. The athlete, also known as “blade runner” because of his double amputee legs, had an unlicensed weapon in his home. 

In the very recent past, he was reported to have inappropriately fired a shot in a public place, and just several weeks prior to the shooting of his girlfriend, he had applied for a licence so that he could acquire six more guns. Furthermore, his reputation for having a violent temper – including in his sports life – is widely known among his friends. 

A world renowned athlete, the shining star of South African sport, living in a well-protected gated community with his beautiful model girlfriend, sticks a gun underneath his bed to protect himself. The scene is more reminiscent of a Mexican druglord than a world renowned Paralympian champion. 

Evidently, the South African setting, which is notorious for its gun violence, racism and widespread gun ownership, may be responsible in part for this horrible event. However, the deliberate act of shooting at someone four times with the aim of killing him/her without even knowing the nature of the threat he/she pose seems a long way from self-protection. 

Let us assume that the person Pistorius killed had actually been a burglar. The way that Pistorius’ defence lawyers present this hypothesis makes it appear to be a completely acceptable explanation. If he had killed a burglar, would Pistorius then deserve to become a hero protecting his home and his girlfriend from a dangerous intruder in the backdrop of a country ridden with racial conflict?  

Athletic prowess and sense of entitlement 

Perhaps, what is more important than Pistorius’ innocence or the motives of other athletes who have been violent toward women, is to question how the masculinity of the athletic subject is initially constructed on the sports field, and how it becomes a behavioural norm over time. 

Male athletes are encouraged to feed upon their aggression to beat their opponents. Their outburst on the field is not only acceptable, but is expected and even admired. Off the field, such an athlete is lauded for his competitiveness and receives awards for his prowess and victories. He becomes a sort of secular god, a celebrity figure respected by all social strata in his own country and throughout the world. 

Children look up to him, famous brands use his image for advertising campaigns, and the media flutters around him for every little detail of his life. We also should not forget how much an athlete gets paid in salaries and sponsorship deals. All together, the male athlete becomes virtually untouchable, and eventually his intoxicated ego can no longer recognise its own limits. 

We must consider the possibility that when an athlete is no longer able to distinguish the type of aggression required for winning on the field to his behaviour inside the home, it may be the unwanted symptom of a masculine identity that has gradually come into being. 

“Gender is not innate, that is, something we are born with, but is always an outcome of ‘the making’ through the sum of our learning experience during the process of socialisation.”

Philosopher Judith Butler explains gender as being performative where the constant repetition of our actions and behaviour from the way we talk, or walk, or perform certain rituals throughout the course of our lives constitutes our gender. Butler persuasively demonstrates that gender is not innate, that is, something we are born with, but is always an outcome of “the making” through the sum of our learning experience during the process of socialisation. 

When we extend Butler’s theory to the construction of a specific type of gender performativity – the masculinity of the athletic subject in this case – we can say that the behaviour of athletes is constructed from within (by the self) and without (by society’s patterns of acceptance and rejection) since early childhood. 

However, whenever that masculine subject engages in sociopathic behaviour, it is possible that he is confusing a violent crime for socially acceptable behaviour. The limits of his masculine conduct become blurred at which point he becomes a threat to society for failing to conform to an acceptable conduct. Each one of us is responsible for allowing this distorted construction of masculinity to become so prevalent in modern society. 

If Butler’s theory teaches us anything about gender and how it is produced through repetitive actions, it also instructs us that over time they unwittingly get integrated into society as a norm. The discourse around the Pistorius trial will be significant in telling us just how much violent behaviour by South African athletes will be acceptable to public opinion and the judicial system in the country. 

On Friday, February 22, just one week after the murder, Pistorius was released on bail. He will return to be prosecuted in June 2013. Before his release, Pistorius’ coach said in an interview. “I’m ready… we can start training Monday if he’s out on bail, so… I think just to get his mind, sort of, clear. The sooner he can start with a bit of work, the better.” 

The fact that Pistorius “can get his mind clear” by training just after a week he shot his girlfriend to death seems to confirm the virtually untouchable status of the athlete in society and values the athlete’s reputation beyond any ordinary person’s life. 

What Pistorius’ coach is really saying is that despite this unfortunate incident having caused the death of an innocent young person, if put in proper perspective, the incident was trivial when compared to the importance of Pistorius’ sports career. Pistorius must now focus on things that really matter, that is, being a celebrity athlete. 

Violence against women happens across all cultures and classes. Yet, the public and legal discourses around it are formed by its specific circumstances. Violence by athletes is no less significant than “honour killings” in the Middle East or Southeast Asia in the ways that they tell us about the construction of particular societal types of masculinity and rituals of violence. 

It would be too simple to say that “sports breed violent men”, or “the Islamic religion oppresses women”. Rather we must look deeper into the very masculinity produced and reinforced by a culture that praises it only to condemn it when it is no longer able to contain its negative symptoms. 

When a rupture to social conduct occurs, such as murder, we are given the chance to retrace our steps, analyse what led us there, and consider how we might move forward to a more humane sense of gender relations. 

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a freelance writer and translator currently living in Brazil. With a TV and film background she is working on innovation and creativity projects in Brazil and Turkey.