Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had just seen his team lose to Texas in 1990 and groused to the press, "I'm going to go home and beat my wife." That same year Charles Barkley, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, said after a harrowing win over an NBA rival, "This is a game that, if you lose, you go home and beat your wife and kids." Last season New York Met manager Dallas Green revealed how he dealt with his team's mounting losses: "I just beat the hell out of [my wife] Sylvia and kick the dog and whatever else I've got to do to get it out."
Paterno, Barkley and Green were being flip about a deadly serious subject. According to the surgeon general, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury among women ages 15 to 44. And the FBI reports that as many as four million women are abused each year in the U.S.—about one every eight seconds. Some 4,000 women a year die of injuries suffered in such cases.
Upon hearing the above remarks, some accused Paterno, Barkley and Green of tastelessness or worse, and all three men apologized. Paterno, however, added, disturbingly, that his reference to wife beating was "just part of sports culture, locker room talk, harmless, a joke that did not mean anything."
But such jokes are neither harmless nor meaningless. The insensitivity they reflect is part of a pattern of national denial in which the media, the courts and the public virtually ignore an alarming societal ill. This reality was dramatically underscored by the savage murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and revelations about her sometimes violent marriage to O.J. Simpson. For whether O.J. murdered his ex-wife or not, there is no doubt that he beat her—and did so with near impunity.
As was widely reported in connection with last week's startling developments, in the early hours of New Year's Day 1989, Los Angeles police were summoned to the Simpsons' house and found Nicole hiding in the bushes, severely beaten and terrified because O.J., to whom she was still married, had slapped, kicked and threatened to kill her. It was reportedly the ninth time police had responded to complaints of domestic trouble involving the Simpsons. O.J. pleaded no contest to a spousal assault charge. Prosecutors asked for a 30-day jail sentence plus one year of intensive counseling, but Judge Ronald Schoenberg gave O.J. a laughably lenient sentence that included no jail time, a $200 fine plus a $500 donation to a shelter for battered women, two years probation and some casual counseling—by phone.
"The judge handled it in a disgraceful way," says Willard Gaylin, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. "But Simpson has cultivated the image of a sweet, decent guy, and we didn't care to hear that this man was capable of such brutality."
There have been other cases of wives or girlfriends being assaulted by athletes, including Jose Canseco, John Daly, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Moses Malone and Darryl Strawberry. Furthermore, there has been anecdotal evidence that the excitement of watching events like the Super Bowl can trigger violence toward women by male sports fans. But it would be wrong to treat this as a phenomenon confined to sports. Cracks about wife beating are heard not only in the locker room but also in boardrooms and bars and around office watercoolers. And it isn't just athletes and sports fans who batter women.
"One may hear more about athletes, and athletes do have less accountability in society. They get away with more," says Gaylin. "But judging from my male patients who are athletes, I don't see any difference in tendencies toward violence." Similarly, Elizabeth Harper, director of the Assistance aux Femmes de Montreal, a shelter for battered women, says, "Blaming the Super Bowl—or any other sporting event—for violence against women is looking for a simplistic answer to a complex problem."
Gaylin is right that athletes "get away with more" as a general rule, but in domestic violence cases, punishment and treatment are grossly inadequate for nonathletes, too. As Sue Kuyper, a director of a San Francisco group called Women Organized to Make Abuse Nonexistent Inc., notes, "Of the abused women who were killed by their husbands or boyfriends, a majority died after calling police to their homes at least five times."
If O.J. Simpson killed his ex-wife, the justice system must bear some responsibility. Nicole divorced O.J. in 1992 even though "it required great bravery for her to leave." says Alana Bowman, the supervising deputy in the Los Angeles city attorney's Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit, the department that handled the Simpsons' abuse case. "Seventy-five percent of battered women killed by their spouses are killed after they leave their husbands. That's the most dangerous time."
Just as Magic Johnson's announcement that he was HIV-positive increased public awareness of AIDS, so, too, has the abuse that Nicole Simpson suffered at the hands of one of our best-known and best-liked athletes focused much-needed attention on the subject of violence toward women. That, too, is a deadly epidemic.