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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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An athlete cherishes nothing more than control over an opponent, and nothing lifts him higher than the sense that he has attained that control. For the pitcher whose hopping fastball intimidates a batter, for the lineman who muscles a foe to the turf, there is that sensation, the most sublime in sport, that they have established control. "I owned him after that," they all say. "He was all mine." The pursuit of dominance lies at the heart of all athletic contests, and it happens to be the animating force behind the men who batter their women. Alisa DelTufo, the founder of Sanctuary for Families, a shelter for abused women and children in New York City, sees a line connecting home and arena in the athlete's fight for control. "Men who need to be in control of their environment in order to feel O.K. about themselves often have a problem with domestic violence," says DelTufo, a research fellow at the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in Manhattan.

Very few athletes involved in episodes of battering have stepped forward to discuss either their actions or their histories, but one man who has, Denver Bronco receiver Vance Johnson, was revealing in discussing the childhood influences that shaped him as he grew up in the ghetto of Trenton, N.J. Johnson admits to having repeatedly beaten his first two wives, and in his 1994 book, The Vance: the Beginning and the End, he writes, "Everywhere I looked, men abused women. There was absolutely no respect given to women in Trenton. All of the women were really battered and abused emotionally and physically. It was just a way of life, and no one ever did anything about it.... If you stood on the porch for 15 minutes, you were guaranteed to see some guy beating the——out of his woman out in front of everyone."

For the vast majority of people, battering is so bewildering by nature that it mocks credulity. In case after case, domestic violence is haunted by a central paradox: Why does she stay?

This question hovers over nearly every case of such violence. It was there last July in Islamorada, Fla., when Susan Fitzpatrick, the pregnant wife of Florida Panther goalie Mark Fitzpatrick, reported to police that he had grabbed her, shoved her and kicked her in the back while they were vacationing there. Mark was arrested on a charge of aggravated battery on a pregnant woman, a felony. He denied that charge and entered a pretrial diversion program; upon completion of the program, the charge will be dropped. According to the arrest report, Susan told police that "her husband has hit her many times before and [she] just could not take the abuse any longer. Also she was concerned about the safety of her unborn child." A week after the incident, Susan filed for divorce; the child, a daughter, was born on Sept. 2.

The question arose again last May after the authorities arrested Chicago Bull forward Scottie Pippen on a charge of domestic battery following an episode in which, according to police reports, he injured his fiancée, Yvette DeLeone, by grabbing her arm and shoving her against a car in the garage of the home they were sharing in Highland Park, Ill. The incident occurred on May 19, the day after Chicago was eliminated from the playoffs.

The episode was not the first for Pippen, according to police reports. His former wife, Karen McCollum, told police that Pippen "hit and choked" her early one evening in the summer of 1989 as she returned home from a court hearing in which she told a Chicago judge that she needed protection from Pippen.

Nor was it the first incident for DeLeone and Pippen, according to a statement DeLeone gave police. Two years earlier DeLeone told police she suffered fractures of the right hand after Pippen "threw the victim approximately six feet out the front door." The misdemeanor charge of battery in that case was dropped when DeLeone declined to sign a complaint; charges in the most recent incident were thrown out July 17 when DeLeone abruptly abandoned the case. Pippen's lawyers had asserted in court papers that they would show a "pattern of lying and deceit" throughout the couple's romance and that DeLeone "fabricated an entire life history." Her departure, without any financial settlement, brought to an end a relationship that DeLeone insisted had been marked by violence for two years.

"Domestic violence is a very difficult cycle for a woman to break," DelTufo says. "And like leaving anything that you know and feel strong about, it is hard, very hard."

No one knows this better than Nancy Saad. She and Parish were perfectly suited for each other, bound as they were by the braids they wove together out of their family histories. Parish grew up in Shreveport, La., and Saad says he used to regale her with stories about his feuding relatives. "Pulling knives and guns on each other," she says. "He saw a lot of violence growing up."

Saad was raised in a rigidly patriarchal family with Middle Eastern roots. Her Lebanese mother, Mary, was passive and battered; her Syrian-born father, Fred, was domineering and violent. He used to lecture Parish on the art of keeping the headstrong Nancy in line. Because of her upbringing, she thought that being battered was the natural order of things. "It becomes a way of life," she says. "When my father used to choke me or take a knife to me, my mother would say, in Arabic, 'Get some sleep. Your father really loves you. It's the only way he knows how to show you.' If a man wasn't aggressive and abusive, he didn't love me."

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