Sports Culture Denigrates Women

June 26, 1994|By ANN G. SJOERDSMA

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.

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