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Sports' Dirty Secret
William Nack
July 31, 1995
When scarcely a week passes without an athlete being accused of domestic violence, it is no longer possible to look the other way
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July 31, 1995

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

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At 10 minutes to six last Friday afternoon, attorney Lynden Rose picked up a telephone in the walled suburban Houston mansion of his client, former Houston Oiler quarterback Warren Moon, and placed a call to Fort Bend County district attorney John Healey to ask him what he planned to do on that delicate matter regarding his client.

An hour and a half earlier, in a press conference orchestrated for maximum damage control, Moon, who was anointed the NFL's Man of the Year in 1989, looked tense and frightened as he sat with his family on a couch in the living room of their Missouri City house and admitted that he had "lost control" and made a "tremendous mistake" in an assault on Felicia Moon, his wife of 14 years. Missouri City police had been investigating the incident ever since the youngest of the Moons' four children, seven-year-old Jeffrey, called 911 to report it three days earlier. Felicia had given a detailed description of the attack in a sworn statement filed last Tuesday with Missouri City police, and while rumors abounded in Houston that an arrest was imminent, Healey did not rush to judgment.

However, Warren had been stonewalling the police, who said they had asked him repeatedly to come to headquarters to give his version of events, but he had never shown. On Friday morning the cops stopped asking: They told him they wanted him at the station house by 6 p.m. Two hours before the deadline, the Moons held their press conference, and 15 minutes after it was over, Rose called Healey to tell him that Warren would not be coming in. Healey had not attended the conference, but in a curious exercise in long-distance eavesdropping, he had listened to it—live, by telephone—through a hookup with a radio station in Minneapolis, where Warren now plays for the Minnesota Vikings. By the time Rose called again at 10 till six, Healey had made up his mind. "We are going to charge him," the prosecutor said.

And so, accompanied by Felicia, his lawyer and his agent, Leigh Steinberg, Warren surrendered to authorities at the Missouri City jailhouse. There he was fingerprinted and booked on one count of misdemeanor assault, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of $4,000 and a year in jail. He was released after posting a $1,000 bond, with arraignment set for Sept. 19.

It was, beyond the peculiar machinations that preceded the arrest, a fairly standard case of domestic violence, American style—from the 911 call to the flight of the victim, and from Warren's act of contrition to Felicia's pleas that he not be prosecuted. Police said they rushed to the Moon residence in response to Jeffrey's report of an assault in progress, but by the time they arrived, Felicia and Warren were gone. After Felicia returned home, police said, she told detectives that Warren had struck her on the head with an open hand and "choked her to the point of nearly passing out." She said she managed to break loose and flee in an automobile, according to police, with Warren pursuing her in a "high-speed chase" until she eventually eluded him.

What quickly set the incident apart, of course, was Warren's status as a hero-athlete in Houston, where he had quarterbacked the Oilers for 10 seasons and where he had been involved for years in charitable works. There was that good name to protect, with all those endorsements riding on it, and so when the incident came to light, Warren attempted to trivialize his apparent efforts to strangle Felicia by claiming that this was not a case of domestic violence but rather a "domestic dispute" that had gotten out of hand: "Because of the strain in our marriage, regrettably a heated argument occurred yesterday," he said the day after the incident. "It was very unfortunate, but it happened. Felicia and I both love each other and will work together to move in a positive direction with God in our lives."

By Friday the episode was the story of the week in Houston, the hot topic on radio call-in shows, and there was no more trivializing what had occurred. So Warren, with Steinberg doing the engineering, decided to try to settle things from his living room couch. "Something happened, and it wasn't good," Steinberg said after the press conference. "We could not let the tension grow." Flanked by his family, a domestic-violence advocate and lawyers and friends—with a floral arrangement sent by the Houston Rockets' Clyde Drexler sitting nearby—Warren stared straight ahead as he spoke, talking about "a sad thing that has happened," about how he wanted to save his family and make the marriage work and about losing control. "It scared me," he said. "I made a tremendous mistake. I take full responsibility for what happened.... I want to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Four hours later, after a public purging designed to put the whole business behind him, Moon was having his mug shot taken. Having miscalculated, Steinberg was indignant. "I don't understand what the governmental interest is," he said. "He has faced his own conduct. He has admitted it privately and publicly.... What societal value is protected by arresting Warren Moon?"

Healey was unmoved by all such arguments—by Felicia's wishes that he drop the charges, by Warren's contrition and philanthropy, by Steinberg's pronouncements on the nature of justice. Instead, he wondered, how would Warren have been treated if in the course of an argument with a stranger, perhaps a female, he had slapped her and then choked her until she almost passed out? Why should such an assault be treated differently because the victim was his wife? "A crime has taken place," Healey said. "There was an assault. The criminal process was put into operation."

The prosecutor has a case—the 911 tape, Felicia's statement, a new Texas law that can compel a wife to testify against her husband and a statement by Warren that seemed tantamount to an admission of guilt. But if Healey pursues the prosecution, says Rose, Warren will plead not guilty. There is no telling the outcome. Warren is a folk hero in Houston, a doer of good works—and this, after all, is a case of domestic violence. A neck-wringing minimized as a "domestic dispute." An assault masquerading as an argument. A crime perceived and treated like no other in America, especially, it seems, when it is committed by an athlete.

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