By Dan Bernstein
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) It sounds simple enough: before you decide to whip up the next inspirational sports legend to sell to the world, check to see if he’s already spent time in jail.
Far from the strictest level of due diligence, it’s merely something that should be considered before making him a Summer Olympics poster boy or the heroic focal point of an international ad campaign. Find out if there might be some potential downside in being involved with this person, or at the very least some reason to act responsibly in painting a more complicated, truthful picture of him for your audience.
Amid all the grisly details emerging in the story of Oscar Pistorius being charged with the murder of his girlfriend, what should make us angry is what was already known, or should have been. It appears actual facts were ignored, because they would have interfered with the made-for-TV story during the coverage of the 2012 London games.
The average consumer is allowed to be shocked by the news. Producers and executives at NBC and officials at Nike, however, are not.
In 2009, Pistorius was arrested and jailed for 24 hours for allegedly assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a party at his house. She eventually chose not to pursue charges.
Also that year, Pistorius wrecked his speedboat in a violent crash that also broke his nose, jaw, eye socket and several ribs. Witnesses said he was drinking before the accident, and alcohol was found on the boat by police, who conveniently did not administer a test for blood-alcohol level.
Either one should be enough to tap the brakes on the myth-building. Enough to question the wisdom of pushing all-in with the stirring narrative, enough to want to dig deeper into a troubled, unstable personality, and enough to give pause to what the future could hold.
This was three years before the Olympics. Plenty of time to make rational, informed decisions on how to balance the story of his unprecedented achievement on the track with his high-speed, high-risk, high-caliber life away from it.
It’s possible that nobody on this side of the world knew anything whatsoever about either incident, but too improbable to accept. What’s more likely is that nobody wanted to ask the hard questions that could derail an attention-grabber and money-maker.
For Nike it’s just the latest embarrassment to necessitate a retroactive scrubbing. Not long removed from the Tiger Woods scandal, Joe Paterno’s ruined name had to be taken of their corporate child-care center. Then the Lance Armstrong fairy tale crumbled before our eyes. Now some ominous images are coming down, the ones on the web with Pistorius saying “I am the bullet in the chamber,” and the 60-second TV spot with the unfortunate title of “Weapon.”
It would seem that neither NBC nor Nike end up hurt by any of this, however. The viewership the games generated won’t be undone, no shoes unsold, no publicity returned. In large part, there are no consequences whatsoever for such willful ignorance.
NFL teams, by contrast, routinely employ pricey private investigators to vet the behavioral tendencies and off-field histories of prospective draft picks or signees, wary that a bad judgment could mean negative attention, lesser return on investment, impediment to winning, and/or endangerment of the community.
For a network or marketing company, we have learned there is no such connection. There is more motivation to air-brush blemishes and whitewash the past than uncover anything off-message.
The only proper response, then, is to withhold trust as consciously and steadfastly as ever when confronted with unlikely heroes that get painted with logos and rammed down our throats.