All-too-human heroes

Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson?

Yes, I know it's Joe DiMaggio in the song. But Robinson has always been a personal sports hero, and at the rate things are going, I wonder if there are going to be any of those left.

This Valentine's Day brought shocking news of the arrest of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee who sprinted to stardom for South Africa in the London Olympics, in the shooting death of his girlfriend. Born without fibulae, Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old, but didn't let his differences - nor those who thought the prosthetic blades he ran on gave him an unfair advantage - stop him from competing at the highest level and inspiring thousands.

Now, he's in jail, charged in the death of Reeva Steenkamp, a beautiful blonde with a law degree and a burgeoning acting career. Steenkamp died early Thursday of several bullet wounds to the head and arm, and police have said there is no other suspect in her death.

Shocking and disturbing news, to be sure. But beyond the bare and unsettling facts, something else bothers me. Early rumors that Pistorius had shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar in a country besieged by violent crime were seized upon and circulated, even though those reports surprised police, who confirmed a previous incident of "a domestic nature" at Pistorius' home. Pistorius was also arrested in 2009 for assaulting a woman; he was released.

I am not hastening to pile on Pistorius now that the shine has come off the mirrored sunglasses he wore while reaching the 400 meter semifinals this past summer. However, I'm troubled by this widespread knee-jerk tendency to whitewash something horrible, to make it less than, to preserve some of the hero worship that Pistorius' success spawned.

Have we - the media, society, humans - learned nothing from Lance Armstrong? Do we not remember oh-so recent lessons about the capricious folly of elevating sports stars to deity status? Or do we get some sort of perverse joy out of constructing ever-higher pedestals, then watching their occupants fall?

I don't know the facts of the Pistorius case, other than another woman is dead, another sports star facing charges. It's a sad and too-familiar refrain. 

I'm certain there are good people making headlines in sports today. I've covered quite a few, big names and people you've never heard of. An example of each: Mike Sellers, the former Redskins running back who cut quite an intimidating figure in the locker room, teared up when talking to me about his daughter for a story about a teammate with a gravely ill infant son. C.J. Woollum, the longtime athletic director and men's basketball coach at Division III Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., made the world a better, nicer, more eloquent place for the 64 years he inhabited it. 

I know no one is perfect. I know Jackie Robinson was a flawed and troubled man. I also know the No. 42 stenciled in Dodger blue on the back of a baseball jersey still gives me chills - and hope, for sports and humanity.

I don't know if I can, or ever will, say the same about any athlete again. And I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.