Covering Sports Heroes p. 11

By: Susan Paterno

Sports editors discuss why the 1989 wife abuse arrest of O.J. Simpson was not taken seriosly by the media.

WHEN FOOTBALL SUPERSTAR O.J. Simpson was arrested for abusing his wife in 1989, the charge and subsequent no-contest plead appeared in afew brief mentions buried in sports and feature sections across the country.
Nowhere did the press report or follow up on the statement his wife made in the 1989 police report: “”You never anything about him,”” a half-dressed Nicole Simpson, her eye black, her lip split, told police. “”You talk tohim and then leave.””
The press failed to take the 1989 arrest and conviction seriously for a variety of reasons, according to interviews with editors ar newspapers across the country.
The most common reasons, editors said, are the tendency to glorify sports legends rathers than dig into a less obvious dark side, the failure to recognize domestic violence as serous problem and the feeling that Simpson was past his prime as the sort national celebrity people wanted to read about.
Now, though, with Simpson arrested and charged with the murder of his former wife and her friend, some editors say they will rethink the way the cover sports celebrity stories.
“From now on, you’re going to see more an dmore aggressive action on part of media and sports media-on the part of our sports department anyway,”” said Don Skwar, executive sports editor of the Boston Globe.
But other editors, such as Ron Kaye, assistant management editor for the Daily News of Los Angeles, say they would change little abou the way the 1989 wife beating incident was played.
‘He was a hero,”” said Kaye. “”He came up from poverty. He had a sweet and fine manner and an unvelievalbe level of athletic prowess and achievement. And I’m going to tear down a guy’s life work because he had a fight with his wife?””
After the murder, the Los Angeles Times, along with other media, reported the text of the 1989 police incident report and the 911 emergency calls that Nicole had made to report domestic disputes. But in 1989, “”there didn’t seem to be any story,”” said Times columnist Larry Stewart, who covers radio and television sports.””
Several months after the 1989 no contest plea, stewart pulled Simpson aside at a news conference and asked him quitely abou the arrest.
“He said it had been overblown,”” Stewart relates now. “”He said the police came the next day and because of new laws, they said they’d have to arrest him.
“I was very convinced that it had been overblown,”” Stewart added. “”I may have been more anxious to get after this if I had heart rumors about him being a bad guy and losing his temper. But you heard none of that. Here he tells me it was really overblown, a bum rap, you tend to believe him. That’s what’s so mind-bogling abou it. How can somebody be so different? Here was a man loved in public and private life, who really had no chinks in his armor. You ask him about this one chink and he explains it pretty well. You tend to believe him and go on. What man in this country hasn’t yelled at his wife?””
Most papers outside of Southern California used brief stories that came over the wires, accoriding to a review of 152 newspapers nationwide. What appeared seemed of little news value, editors said.
“People said, ‘Well, that’s off the field and he wasn’t playing anymore anyway. It doesn’t relate to what O.J. is about. That’s a family matter,”” said Skwar.
Seattle Times sports editor Cathy Henkel agreed.
“[Simpson] was known for clean living. That was his reputation. He didn’t have anything negative. As far as I knew, as far as my readers knew, there was only one incident. It was a blip on the screen,”” she said.
“If O.J. had been in Seattle, we would have covered it and covered it thoroughly,”” she added. “”But if I’m the Boston Globe or the Los Angeles times or the New York Times, I have a different agenda. Mine is to watch local athletes. We follow them now and will continue to. This is not something we’re going to let go by.””
Timing, too, played a role in the lack of coverage, Henkel said. When Michael Jackson was accused of-but never arrested for-child molestation, for example, reporters followed him around the globe and procured every public record available. But the O.J. Simpson wife-beating case was different.
Jackson was “”at the height of his career, unlike Simpson, who has gone down the other side,”” Henkel said. “”His athletic career is over. He had a couple of bad movies and some commercials. His reputation is based on the past.””
But many editors likely misjudged how important Simpson was to American culutre, said Ann Marie Lapinski, managing editor for the Chicago Tribune. “”I didn’t understand him,”” she said.””I’ve seen the word icon used. I don’t know that I understood him to be that. That’s probably true of a number of editors.””
She also believes journalists traditionally have failed to recognize domestic violence as a serious problem.
“It’s no secret that domestic violence doesn’t get the same treatment, has not traditionally gotten the same sort of treatment from journalists of law enforcement or the courts that other crimes get,”” Lapinski said. “”We should pay attention to women not as famous as Nicole Simpson who are just as dead.””
Journalism and the public minimized the incident, some editors said, because Nicole Simpson refused to press charges and the couple denied there was a serious problem. Even Hertz and NBC continued to employ Simpson in high-profile jobs after the arrests and plea.
There’s pathology to domestic violence that I don’t think is recognized,”” Lapinski said.
The Mike Tyson rape trial and conviction “”raised consciousness at a lot of papers,”” she said.
“That story occasioned healthy discussions about how we react when the sports and legal and criminal worlds intersect. As a result of local stories on domestic violence and discussion internally about Tyson, we started to turn away from how we traditionally covered stories.””
Still, she added, “”Journalists don’t take sports as seriously. We have a different mindset about how we cover the sporting world versus the political or business world or pretty much anybody else.””
Los Angeles Times deputy sports editor John Cherwa remembered the reaction when the story of Simpson’s arrest in 1989 broke.
“We all had the same reaction, “”Oh, isn’t this interesting.’ It was one of the many, many stories about violence and athletes. There was nothing that made this one stick out more than the others.
“There’s a lot of cases of domestic violence. That’s a rather common thing in the sports world and the reald world. I think for us to launch a big-time investigation into one of them stands a chance of being more hamful than good.
“While they’re all public figures, I’m not sure that gives us the right to open up their lives. In a domestic violence situation, there’s a polarization of throughts and beliefs invovled. Getting to the truth is very difficult.
“You’d love to have time to pull all the police records. BUt the quick reconciliation tended to overshadow the violence. Police reports arent always a total reflection of fact. I would have erred on being more responsible. To do nothing is to be closer to responsible.””
Notices about athletes committing crimes are indeed plentiful, agreed George Solomon, the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for sports.
“I, as sports editor, could have been guilty with O.J. Simpson in 1989 thinking it was a domestic problem, not being more aggressive looking into it,”” he said. “”We pursue local athletes when they get into trouble.
“I I was in L.A., if I was a sports editor there and had seen the [1989] report about O.J., would I have been more aggressive? I don’t know,”” Solmon said.
“Would I be more aggressive today? Yes. Editors and reporters are paying more attention because I think our readers demand it. They want harder, more critical, tougher reporting.””
The real untold O.J. Simpson story, the one domestic violence is obscuring, the Times’ Kaye said, is “”the race question. It’s the taboo subject of the story.
“He was palatable to white America. He was a popular, safe black figure. And, according to others who knew him, it was a highly cultivated image. But really, he was just a guy like the rest of us.””
Kaye and the other editors blamed the lack of more aggressive reporting on Simpson and celebrities like him who hide behind gilded images and publicists.
“On an awful lot of levels, athletes are protected [from scritny] by public relations staffs whose job it is to keep the media from seeing the seamier side,”” said the Glove’s Skwar.
“The media reported on what it saw, what it was allowed to see, what they wanted to see, maybe what they thought the public wanted to see. Clearly, we didn’t do as well as we could have done, but I’m not sure I’d say we crewed up.””
From now on, though, many editors said they will be more careful when it comes to reporting on sports celebrities.
“If we do a feature, we’re going to make sure we check on what this person is about before we start heaping praise,”” said Skwar.
“We sometimes take for granted that celebrities don’s have a dark side. More than anything, that’s what I think is at work here. We sometimes put our heroes on toohigh a pedestal, when we should examine them closely. I’m not sayin gthat we turn in an expose for every feature. But I think we have to be more careful.””

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