O.J. Simpson: The patient zero of athlete privilege

Bettmann/Contributor

The first chapter of ESPN's expansive, fascinating, tragic "O.J.: Made In America" documentary will premiere Saturday night on ABC, with subsequent chapters (five in total) airing on ESPN the following week.

At the center of the film is O.J. Simpson and the double-homicide trial that captivated the nation, but there is a much larger story, a much more profound goal. Not just to understand the case, or even Simpson himself, but to understand America -- the America that helped make him and, eventually, unravel him. An America that is still, so many years later, pained by the same issues of class, race, police brutality, domestic violence and fame.

The issues of entitlement, fame and domestic violence are especially compelling now, as the country is experiencing an enlightenment of sorts when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault.

After so many years of ignoring or downplaying the insidiousness of violence against women, there seems to be a bit of a sea change in terms of acknowledgement. A few very high-profile cases have certainly helped create more widespread awareness and conversation.

People all over the country are shocked by the sexual assault accusations levied at Bill Cosby,disgusted by the Ray Rice domestic violence video, maddened by Baylor University's repeated failures in the face of violence against women and enraged by the light sentencing of Brock Turner, the ex-Stanford swimmer who was convicted of raping an unconscious girl behind a dumpster. And yet, for some, the voices of 60-plus women speaking out about Cosby's alleged drugging and rapes are still not enough. For some, the Rice video merely prompted questions about what his fiancée must have done to provoke the blow that knocked her unconscious. For some, Baylor's coaches and administrators deserve a pass because it's not their job to report or act on their athletes' crimes. (According to Title IX law, it is.) And for too many, Turner isn't a rapist; that night was just college drinking and "promiscuousness" gone wrong. His victim was drunk, so whatever happened to her, while unconscious behind that dumpster, was her fault.

Even when we see the abuse with our own eyes, hear the accounts of many or witness a conviction, when the criminals are beloved athletes, coaches and "good guys," we find ways to shame and blame the victims.

One can't help but think of those cases while watching "O.J.: Made In America."

Those who only remember the drooping and drained Simpson of his 1995 murder trial, or the bloated, broken man who stews in jail today, will marvel at the charm, good looks and easy confidence he possessed as a USC football player, NFL star and Hollywood heavyweight. It's easy to see how the glow of his star blinded those around him to the truth.

The very same elements of fame, talent, charisma and entitlement that affected those in Simpson's orbit contribute to the reluctance of friends, family, fans, media and even those in the judicial system to see the truth in cases like those of Cosby, Rice, Turner or Baylor today.

Too many people choose not to believe that these crimes exist, even when the statistics tell us the problem is so pervasive that we must know a victim ourselves -- likely several.

On average, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States, according to The Center for Disease Control, and an estimated 19.3 percent of women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. That's one in five. Yet when a victim approaches a school official or police officer, too often she's dissuaded from speaking up or pressing charges. When she does, she's forced to endure all over again the pain of the attacks against her, plus the added pain of character assault and, too often in cases involving high-profile celebrities, the possibility of her identity being revealed and the resulting threats for speaking out. Watching the relationship between Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson grow more and more volatile as the film continues -- the terrified calls to the police, the photographs of her bruised face -- it's impossible not to mourn the warning signs both missed and ignored. And it's impossible not to think of all the victims, like Nicole, who have and will cry out to friends, family or police in vain.

Near the end of Chapter 1 of "O.J.: Made In America," we meet Nicole. Young, beautiful, vibrant and so very in love with Simpson. In Chapter 2, home videos of their wedding show a couple overjoyed to embark on a life together, with young children to come. Then, one by one, we hear the accounts of friends and police officers who were told of the beatings Nicole suffered at the hands of her husband.

A 1993 recording of Nicole pleading with a 911 operator to send someone to her home, Simpson screaming with rage in the background. Photos of police reports indicating as many as eight different domestic violence calls to Simpson's Rockingham Avenue home. By the end of Chapter 2, Nicole has decided to leave Simpson. In the words of her friend, Robin Greer, Nicole was elated to move on, to do what and see who she pleased. To finally say, "I'm free."

As Chapter 3 begins, all that's left of that vibrant, beautiful young woman -- that daughter, sister, wife and mother -- is a body. We see the crime scene photos, her body splayed out on the tile outside of her home, covered in blood and stab wounds, her head nearly severed. It's graphic and awful, and I didn't last more than a second or two before turning away. Those images return again later in the film, but you won't need them, so imprinted are they already on your brain.

The photos take the focus off of the white Bronco, Kato Kaelin, the Dancing Itos and the rest of the tabloid fodder that dominated the headlines during the Simpson trial. They are a reminder that, in the end, this is about murder. Two gruesome and brutal murders. About the tragic and terrible end of a love story, an end that too many could have and should have prevented.

If the O.J. Simpson story fascinated us merely as sensationalist, tabloid fodder -- just a high-profile crime involving a wealthy and charismatic star -- it would've come and gone by now. It's the bigger picture that keeps us interested. The way Simpson's rise and fall shines a light on America's obsession with athletes and celebrity, how race can divide a country, city and courtroom, and the manner in which his relationship with his wife displays, in the worst possible way, what happens when the cries of battered women go unheard.

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