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Sports Culture Denigrates Women


Lest you think that the O. J. Simpson story of double homicide, flight and threatened suicide, is about a "fallen hero" or an "American tragedy," think again. No such grandeur exists here. It's about denigrating and trivializing women; it's about depreciating and minimizing women's lives. It's about values.

Football superstar O. J. Simpson may have brandished the knife that ended the lives of his second ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman, 25, in an unholy blood bath June 12, but he was not alone. A long-standing fraternity conspired with him.

Firmly behind Mr. Simpson, and now anxious in its implication, was the insular male sports culture -- the players, coaches and owners, the sportswriters and broadcasters, the PR men and corporate sponsors, and the fans -- who taught O. J., either through silent condoning or "manly" encouragement, to disrespect women.

In this culture, women do not exist as separate individuals with interesting, full, complex lives of their own. They are mere extensions of men, available at their pleasure. They are treated as children, associated with the children they bear and nurture.

In an interview last year with the Buffalo News, Mr. Simpson, 46, spoke about his new relationship with 25-year-old model Paula Barbieri: "This is the first woman I've been involved with who had a career and has been successful in her own right, which is interesting. It is the first time I had to make concessions to another schedule, which is weird to me."

Women may appear on the sidelines wearing scant costumes, false smiles and big hair, to cheer the boys on. They may wait outside the warrior's arena or his hotel room and be treated to a one-time romp in superstar hay. And every now and then, the culture permits a female sportscaster such as Lesley Visser and Gayle Gardner. But women as serious partners in sport? Hardly.

The values of this culture, which bred, rewarded and then exploited O. J. Simpson, are physical -- power, speed, strength, toughness, occasionally grace. Its goals are superficial and meaningless to a moral life -- money, success, fame, luxury, sexual conquest. Winning. Good looks, muscular bodies, sexy images domi- nate. A part of the entertainment business, which continuously exploits violence against women, this culture is defined by a sexist male point of view.

Among its "128 Best Things Anyone Ever Said," published March 6, 1989, People magazine lists this quote by O. J. Simpson: "I value money. I value my home. I do not like credit. I want to own things."

And yet, athletes who exude a loose, easy "class," "charm" and "style" -- as Mr. Simpson did, with his handsome, chiseled features, expensive clothes and years of image and language coaching -- become much beloved. They become that falsest of the false idols: the modern-day Narcissus, the jock extraordinaire, the "man's man."

The mythological O. J. was a perfect athlete with a perfect face and a perfect body who made the perfect transition from a perfect Hall-of-Fame football career to a perfect movie-star life. That Mr. Simpson is black made him a media dream come true. As long as he smiled and looked like a Greek god, he didn't have to seem relaxed or provide cogent, insightful commentary. He wasn't, and he didn't.

If press and TV reports are to be believed, I may be the only sports fan/journalist in the country who knew and cared that Mr. Simpson was both a womanizer and a wife beater. Why?

It was no secret that his first marriage to high school sweetheart Marguerite Whitley, who was Mr. Simpson's good buddy Al Cowlings' girlfriend when O. J. started pursuing her, ended with recrimination and less-than-heroic behavior.

In the 1976 book, "The Superwives," by Jeanne Parr, Ms. Whitley recalls an incident when O. J., a "great practical joker," reassured a dejected airline stewardess that the woman sitting next to him on the plane was not in fact his wife, but rather his

sister. Thus relieved, the flirtatious attendant spent the flight whispering and giggling in Mr. Simpson's ear, falling into his lap whenever the plane lurched.

Theirs was a troubled marriage marked by separation. In "Superwives," Ms. Whitley talks freely and with anxiety about sex and the predatory "jock lovers" who stalk and seduce professional athletes.

Unfortunately, she sees her jealousy of these women as "her" problem, not as the couple's problem.

Conflicting reports indicate that Ms. Whitley was either pregnant or had recently given birth when her 30-year-old husband started dating an 18-year-old high school homecoming princess named Nicole Brown. Ms. Whitley filed for divorce in 1979.

That same year, the Simpsons' 23-month-old daughter, Aaren, died after being found unconscious at Ms. Whitley's Los Angeles home. O. J. Simpson publicly chastised his first wife, but declined to comment further, and the matter ended there. I wanted to know much more about what actually happened.

I also read -- in 1989, not just the other day -- about the now notorious 1989 New Year's Day beating, about Nicole Simpson's numerous 911 calls to the police preceding it, and I followed the case.

As a lawyer who as represented battered women and as an admirer of Mr. Simpson's sports achievements and his affable public persona, I was especially interested.

Thus I knew that he arrogantly denied the seriousness of his crime and scoffed at the lenient sentence he received, failing to perform properly either the mandated community service or the psychological counseling. The patriarchal judicial system, which has long turned a blind eye to domestic violence, let Mr. Simpson off the hook.

Like so many battered women who do not value themselves -- they protect their children, but not themselves -- Nicole Simpson did not "press charges" in the case, and I thank the male prosecutor who conscientiously proceeded to court. Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti seems to be cut from the same mold.

The beating was not "a private matter"; it was a crime.

I believe Mr. Garcetti has made a tactical error in appointing a woman to lead the prosecution against Mr. Simpson. He must understand that he is fighting an entrenched culture, not just an image. It would be much more effective to have a black man prosecute the "American hero," thus sending the message that men, powerful men, especially men of color, do not tolerate violence against women. A woman's outrage is not enough. In fact, it's insignificant.

Similarly, the news media have to stop assigning the "hard news" stories about the Simpson case to male reporters and the sidebars on "soft" domestic violence to women. Until the male-dominated culture makes the statement that men care about such crimes, women's lives will continue to be minimized and, tragically, lost.

A gifted and dazzling athlete who thrilled me many times 20 years ago, O. J. Simpson was never a "hero," courageous in crisis and noble in choice -- at least not in public -- until he surrendered to police on June 17, thus saving his life for his children. Yes, he transcended a fatherless life of poverty and privation and excelled at a tough sport. Yes, he was outwardly charming and kind. But he always served himself, sometimes at the expense of others. That people would cheer him on while he fled from justice -- and from himself -- treating him as a movie action-adventure hero, is an affront to society.

I am not without empathy for Mr. Simpson, nor have I found him legally "guilty." He has a history, which, although not well publicized, was always discernible, of mistreating women, emotionally and physically. That he personally may not have appreciated the abuse for what it was -- not having learned introspection, altruism or rational reflection -- is possible. I believe his remorse and feel for his pain. But he crossed an uncrossable line.

Mr. Simpson's "suicide note," read by his friend Robert Kar--ian at a news conference after Mr. Simpson's flight, suggests a breakdown of self, a dissociation of the ego into the "good O. J." -- whom Mr. Simpson calls the "real O. J." -- and the "bad O. J." -- the "lost person." One "self," it seems, might be capable of killing, while the other "self" would recoil from it.

Of course, had Mr. Simpson, or the California court that convicted him of battery, taken seriously the probationary condition that he undergo psychological counseling, especially group counseling, in which he would be more likely to be held strictly accountable, he might not be where he is today.

Stories about Mr. Simpson's womanizing were always "out there." So, too, were Nicole Simpson's allegations of abuse. But they were ignored; the womanizing probably envied. It's part of the myth, the culture. Ask Wilt Chamberlain or Magic Johnson or Wade Boggs, all sports "heroes," about their attitudes toward women. Popular boxer Sugar Ray Leonard beat his wife.

In his coverage of the stakeout at Mr. Simpson's home, CBS anchorman Dan Rather compared Mr. Simpson to Shakespeare's distinguished, black Moor of Venice, Othello, a war hero who, deceived by the crafty, vengeful soldier Iago into believing that his new bride, Desdemona, had been unfaithful, smothers her and falls on his sword when he realizes his wrong. Two days later, ABC's Sam Donaldson also invoked the Bard's name in describing the Simpson "tragedy." Newsweek prefers Julius Caesar, with Mr. Simpson no doubt cast as the noble Brutus, not the brooding Cassius.

Oh, what fools these mortals be! The O. J. Simpson story has nothing to do with the intellectual hand-wringing of complex Elizabethan tragedians and even less to do with the high-minded Greek heroes who, nobly and futilely, made reasoned choices in their struggle to resist fates they could not escape. Like it or not, O. J. Simpson is a 20th-century Everyman.

Ann Sjoerdsma is a lawyer, book critic and former sports columnist who recently relocated from Baltimore to Kitty Hawk, N.C.

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