Athletes, domestic violence and the hurdle of indifference

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O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson in March 1994.

"O.J.: Made In America" is an unflinching project. Perhaps no moment makes that more clear than the inclusion of the homicide photos from the night of June 12, 1994, when the bodies of Simpson's wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, were found stabbed, slashed and lying in pools of their own blood in front of her home. In two segments, the camera lingers on the photos, zooming in at points and allowing the viewer plenty of time to take them in. In one sequence, a prosecutor from the trial narrates what is believed to be the order of events, with the verbal descriptions of violence matched to the images of the knife's damage on the bodies.

The director, Ezra Edelman, explained in an interview that he chose to do this because "two people got murdered -- brutally murdered. This is what this is about." By seeing the photos in full, "It makes a viewer -- to me -- focus on exactly what happened and what [Simpson] might have done." Edelman makes the same decision when he plays long sections of 911 calls that Nicole made previously to report Simpson being violent.

On screen, photos of her bruised face taken on multiple occasions are shown over and over. Edelman spends a good amount of time on the 1989 New Year's Eve incident in which Brown Simpson told a police officer that Simpson was going to kill her, and O.J. shrugged off the cop's threat to arrest him by pointing out that the LAPD had been to the house eight times before and had never done anything. Simpson eventually pleaded no contest to spousal abuse.

Yet for all of the things that "O.J.: Made in America" unpacks, it doesn't spend any time looking at domestic violence as part of our culture -- though certainly, that violence was made in America too. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, "on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States." The unnamed ex-wife of a former New Orleans Saints player told the Washington Post in October 2014, "There's abuse on every team. Everybody knows, but you know not to tell."

It's hard to know what, if anything, has changed culturally since June 12, 1994. The easiest answer is to say that we are paying better attention now, and awareness of the issue is growing. Yet people were plenty aware in the mid-1990s. In November 1994, the Washington Post reported on the "141 men -- 56 current and former professional football players and 85 college football athletes -- who have been reported to police for violent behavior toward women since Jan. 1, 1989, when Simpson beat his wife during a predawn argument."

In the summer of 1995, right in the middle of Simpson's nearly yearlong trial, Sports Illustrated published a piece titled "Sports' dirty secret: When scarcely a week passes without an athlete being accused of domestic violence, it is no longer possible to look the other way." Domestic violence cases involving Warren Moon, Scottie Pippin, Mike Fitzpatrick, Irving Spikes and Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson were widely reported in 1995 and 1996.

The awareness around the issue, especially with the intensity surrounding Simpson's trial, extended all the way to the federal government. In January 1996, then-Representative Bernie Sanders and Representative Constance Morella wrote an open letter to the commissioner of the NFL and the executive director of the NCAA asking the league and the association to directly address the problem of players committing violence against women.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

O.J. Simpson during a pretrial hearing in his double-murder case in September 1994. At left is his attorney Robert Shapiro.

It's not clear that happened or that anything is substantially different today because of what everyone knew and talked about two decades ago.

One thing that remains the same is how the victims function in the stories we tell about this violence. In "O.J.: Made in America," Brown Simpson is not an afterthought by any measure. Yet she has a specific purpose. She is Simpson's wife and the mother of his children. What we know of her is almost exclusively in relationship to the man who her friends say controlled her every move and belittled her, who had someone follow her wherever she went and repeatedly physically assaulted her. More than anything, she is a murdered woman, an accessory to Simpson's story.

This is how most cases of domestic violence go when the perpetrator is a celebrity, especially an athlete. This is as true now as it was in 1989 or 1994. We, as fans, consume these cases as fans. It is about our relationship to the athlete we have come to know and to cheer on. The victim and the violence are auxiliary in that experience. At most, they function as the catalysts for us to question or abandon our relationship and adoration of an athlete. When the video of Ray Rice punching and knocking out his then-fiancee, Janay, was released in September 2014, people rushed to watch it and then immediately began to talk about Ray, what he had done, what was going to happen to him, what it said about him as a person. There were some pockets of people who asked after Janay, wondered if she was safe and cared about the impact of the video's release on her life. She told her story to Jemele Hill a few months later, and it was an important intervention in the reporting of the case.

We, as fans, consume these cases as fans. It is about our relationship to the athlete we have come to know and to cheer on. The victim and the violence are auxiliary in that experience.
Jessica Luther

Sometimes, though, women do not even achieve that level of visibility. On Dec. 1, 2012, Kansas City Chief linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before driving to the Chiefs' stadium and shooting himself. In the days that followed, Perkins was mentioned, but often her name appeared paragraphs into stories, most frequently in passing. Much of the focus was instead on Belcher, how great he was at football or how his teammates overcame the adversity of the incident to take the field only two days later.

In response to such coverage and the erasure of Perkins as anything but "Belcher's girlfriend," David Leonard wrote a piece titled, "Kasandra Michelle Perkins: We Must Say Her Name."

At Slate, Justin Peters wrote a piece published Dec. 3, 2012, in which he found that "of the 32 NFL teams, 21 of them have this year had at least one player who's been charged at some point with domestic violence or sexual assault." It had echoes of the pieces by the Washington Post in 1994 and Sports Illustrated in 1995, and yet nothing happened in 2012, either. The Belcher case melted away in the public consciousness, and the issue went dormant until Ray Rice. Rice was followed by incidents involving Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, Jonathan Dwyer and Johnny Manziel.

The past two years have been intense in the problem of players in all sports -- collegiate and professional -- committing violence against women. More than 20 years after Simpson went to trial for two murders and two federal representatives asked the league do something about this issue, the NFL has responded. In January 2015, Jane McManus wrote for espnW that we are years away from knowing how successful the league has been at addressing this problem, but it is trying. Although it is hard to measure the effectiveness of that effort, the mere act is new. This feels like progress. But perhaps the mid-1990s felt like a time of progress too.

In 1995, the prosecution's strategy was to present Simpson's past domestic abuse as evidence of his uncontrollable anger, his ability to inflict harm on Nicole and his need to control her life, which in the extreme, they said, led to murder. In "O.J.: Made in America," while one juror and one prosecutor say the state failed to make the connection between domestic violence and murder effectively enough, Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor on the case, said she believes the jury did get that connection, but "they just didn't care."

It is the hurdle of indifference that is the hardest to jump when it comes to changing and mitigating the problem of domestic violence. Stories that include domestic violence are rarely about it, about how often it happens or about the tragic possibility of a fatal escalation for a victim at the hands of an abuser. That is as true today as it was 20 years ago.

All five parts the "OJ: Made In America" documentary are now available for streaming on-demand on WatchESPN and the ESPN App. Jessica Luther is an independent journalist living in Austin, Texas. Her book "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape" comes out in September.

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