The Hero Business

Oscar Pistorius faces murder charges in the death of Reeva Steenkamp. Paul Gilham/Getty Images

A week for falling stars.

The Oscar Pistorius murder charge was a hard punch in the stomach to anyone who still believes in heroes -- and another warning to those of us in the worldwide sports hero business. Because the distance he'll fall is exactly the height of the pedestal we built for him.

Just as there is in Hollywood and the movies and show business, in sports there's a global economy of mythic fictions. Sports runs on profitable illusions of heroism and goodness and wisdom, too. We just add statistics.

Start here, in the Virginia Quarterly Review, with a short, sharp history of image management in the movie business. It goes back 100 years. Then note that producing an industrial quantity of celebrity arrives at the same instant in history as a new mass media needs endless feeding. Symbiosis. Then understand that to make a star requires a very great deal of superheated gas. To destroy one requires slightly less.

The business model, and the narrative tension, lie in doing both. Perpetually. Around the world and around the clock; no creation without destruction. For every star made, one is unmade. Even in sports. So Oscar Pistorius, one of the most inspiring sports stories of the last decade, sold a lot of newspapers. And Oscar Pistorius -- now a front-page tabloid reminder that things aren't always, or even often, what they seem -- will sell many, many more.

How much did we really know? (Answer: "little.") How many questions went unasked? (Answer: "most.") How much of the "truth" do sportswriters and sports fans really want? (Answer: "Next question, please.")

To understand the heartbreaking economy of forever building them up and tearing them down, run your finger slowly along the sports continuum of lesser creeps and cheaters like Pete Rose or Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong, up past the deadbeats and the drunks and the junkies, the head cases and the domestic punchers and the DUIs, the gun-pullers and the stool pigeons and the thieves, and eventually you'll find yourself high in that lightless part of the spectrum with the madmen and the violent idiots, the inadvertent killers and the stone murderers, where the names run from Urbina to Monzon to Belcher, from Rae Carruth to Jayson Williams, and from OJ to Don King

At least we're not the suckers we once were. The illustrated sports histories for kids I read 50 years ago were frictionless, sexless, crew-cut fairy tales in which victory was assured by a diet high in prayer and whole milk. No crime. No violence. Since the general rise of the antihero in the 1970s, however, and the publication of "Ball Four," we've done what little we could to wise up. Or to give that appearance. Maybe we can camouflage our passions. Or at least unplug our "heroes" from our own unglamorous reality.

The most recent variation of which is the ironic distance and affectless deadpan voice of the 21st century. It's important not to appear to care too much. This kind of detached post-modern self-awareness is a way to protect ourselves. It's a subversion of earnestness. Along the same generational lines as saying "It's OK that I'm being sold to at all times -- as long as I know I'm being sold to at all times." Trouble is, there's no such thing as an ironic home run, so irony as armor doesn't work in every case.

Still, it's worth remembering that nothing -- nothing -- takes itself as seriously as big league sports. Not even the movies.

From TMZ to Vanity Fair to ESPN and The New York Times, the celestial apparatus exists to make stars, to manufacture and distribute celebrity, symbols, myths, curses, types, archetypes, sex, uplift, wishes, spells, ambitions, incantations, appetites, instructions, and Kardashians.

That it's always been this way, back past modernity and Homer and into the firelight and then the dark, is not much comfort. We need these stories and symbols and warnings fresh for every generation. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Fame and hubris and strength and weakness and the endless reminder of our genius and our violence and the hard lesson of what it means to be human.

In the end, no matter what a court decides, Oscar Pistorius becomes another cautionary tale. And the last race he ever runs he runs forever, covering again and again the distance between the man he is and the hero we wanted him to be.