Why Didn't Anybody Say Something?

June 22, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — I'd like to believe that the crowds yelling ''Go, O.J., Go,'' on the highway overpass and around the Brentwood mansion were just urging him to live. Not to escape.

I'd like to believe that the California man who said ''O.J. is still a hero around here,'' was echoing the American presumption of innocence. Not the belief that O.J. could be a hero and a murderer.

I'd like to believe that all the colleagues and friends who -- to a man -- found this double-murder charge ''unbelievable'' meant that as an expression of their shock. Not a permanent judgment on the facts.

I'd rather not believe that O.J.'s fans and friends care more about what may happen to him than about what he may have done.

But I am finding this hard.

On Friday night, the man from the Hall of Fame, the man from Hertz and Hollywood and ''NFL Live'' became a fugitive on the L.A. freeways. Millions were horrified by the chance that we would witness a superstar suicide live at 5 or 8 or midnight.

In the days that followed, we heard bulletins from jail on his state of dress and state of mind. The man who wore Number 32 in his glory days had been allotted Number 4013970. They'd given him a blue jumpsuit and taken away his shoelaces.

Orenthal James Simpson lost everything but our attention. He alone remained the star of this tragedy. It took the D.A. to say again and again, ''Do not lose sight of the fact that it is Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman who are the victims.''

The fans and friends watching the public unraveling of a life have shown more than a presumption of O.J.'s innocence. Since his life unravelled, O.J.'s fans have shown a passion for his innocence, a wish bordering on denial that some twist would let their hero off the hook. They lost sight of Nicole long ago.

They've shown a passion for his innocence, a wish bordering on denial that some twist would let their hero off the hook. They lost sight of Nicole long ago.

Whatever the outcome of the murder, we know now that O.J. Simpson beat his wife. We know that the violence was, in the words of the police, ''an ongoing problem'' through their marriage and their attempts at reconciliation.

The L.A. deputy city attorney reminded us what Nicole looked like in 1989 when her husband was finally arrested for beating and threatening to kill her: ''She had a black eye, a swelling cheek, and a bruise to her forehead, scratch marks on her neck.''

We know that O.J. bitterly resented the police ''interference'' into ''a family matter.'' And we know that he paid virtually no price -- pleading no contest to the charge, finessing the court-ordered community service, and doing psychiatric consults by phone between star turns.

Hertz never considered the charge of wife-beating enough of a character flaw to sully his image. Neither did NBC. And, this is the heart of it, neither did his friends.

O.J. Simpson made his living at the center of a nearly all-male culture. His world was made of sports and celebrity, skill and violence, wins and losses, Halls of Fame.

The men who shared his world, knew that this hugely strong man had pleaded no contest to beating a wife. Yet they remain bewildered at the possibility he was violent.

Don Klosterman, a friend and former general manager of the Rams, called the murder charge ''inconceivable . . . inconsistent . . . I've never seen him lose his temper.'' Al Michaels, an ABC

sports announcer said, ''none of us has seen a side to O.J. Simpson that would indicate any of this was possible.'' The list goes on.

Some men who knew about the 1989 ''incident'' talked about O.J.'s side to the story. Other's talked about the circumstances -- ''It happened on New Year's Eve.''

As the evidence accumulated, some of these men now seem appalled by what they didn't see. But how about what they didn't say?

Did anyone utter a word to O.J.? Did anyone say that there is no other side to a story when one side has ''a black eye, a swelling cheek''? Did anyone tell the superstar he needed help?

Star quality is blinding. Maybe it was easier to share the belief expressed in his note, ''If we had a problem it was because I loved her so much.'' Easier to nod in sympathy when he bemoaned, ''At times I have felt like I was a battered husband or boyfriend.''

Four million women are victims of domestic violence every year. As many women are beaten as give birth.

Today, the laws and the police are less likely to ignore abuse than they once were. But it will go on until men withdraw their tacit permission and confront each other. It will go on until batterers are banished by their brothers, stripped of any right to the title of hero.

Go, O.J., Go? Did anybody ever try to stop him?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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