• U.S.

Law The Bad and the Beautiful

8 minute read
Richard Corliss

“I believe a lot of people want to see me self-destruct. They want to see me one day with handcuffs and walking into the police car, going to jail. ((They’ll say)) ‘Look, I told you he was headed for that.’ “

— Mike Tyson, June 1990

“To reach for the highest star,

No matter how far.”

— Desiree Washington, declaring her goal at the Miss Black America

Pageant in Indianapolis, July 1991

They met by a fluke of fate, like a tank and a tricycle at an intersection. He was the most dangerous man in sport, the once and (we supposed) future heavyweight champion of the world, whose conquests included 40 professional boxers and countless women. She was (we now suppose) the last innocent child in America, an 18-year-old Sunday School teacher fresh from high school graduation in a tiny Rhode Island town. When Desiree Washington met Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant last July, she saw not the pug and thug of tabloid legend but a young man wearing a TOGETHER WITH CHRIST button who was praying with Jesse Jackson. Tyson, it appears, saw a late-night snack.

When an Indianapolis jury found Tyson guilty of rape and two counts of criminal sexual-deviate conduct last week, the verdict packed a wallop. For boxing, it meant that the sport would lose its top attraction for the next few years; a Tyson fight with the current champ, Evander Holyfield, could have grossed $100 million. On more profound and intimate levels, the conviction brought hope of legal redress to sexual victims. Says Lynn Hecht Schafran, a New York City attorney with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund: “The case provides a basis for people to go to the police. It should also make prosecutors pursue these cases more aggressively.”

Oddly, there was some sympathy for the devil. Many African Americans, including many women, thought Tyson was a scapegoat for white fears in a white town (the original jury was one-quarter black, about the percentage in Marion County, Ind.) and Washington was either gold-digging or criminally naive. If she wasn’t “asking for it” by joining Tyson in his hotel bedroom, she was at least asking for trouble. Even in Indianapolis, the judgment got mixed reviews. A local TV station asked viewers whether they agreed with the verdict; 60% said no.

Tyson got into this mess — scarred his career and a young woman’s life — because he was not “the Greatest,” like Muhammad Ali, but the baddest. The concept of bad, in its seductive and destructive meanings, has defined his life, job, behavior — and conviction. Count the ways:

Bad Attitude. Tyson was one athlete (there are others) with the outlaw allure of rap and heavy-metal musicians, for whom trashed hotel rooms and paternity suits are the currency of fame. Leave the gentlemanly demeanor to Julio Iglesias — these guys are selling sexual danger. They know there are enough women who find the musk of celebrity irresistible, who are thrilled by both the opportunity and the risk in spending the night with a star.

Tyson has been with many women, treating most, perhaps, with no special gentility. They came not to tame the beast but to unleash him. And few women with whom he had had sex complained, at least officially. It’s possible that at 2 a.m. on July 19 in Room 606 at the Canterbury Hotel, Tyson was as astonished by Washington’s reaction as she was by his actions.

Bad Company. Tyson runs with the wrong crowd. Many of his friends are paid help, hired as extra muscle or procurers. Don King, the convicted killer who promotes Tyson’s bouts, is a sneaky-smooth fighter in smoke-filled rooms.

Another pal, real estate peddler Donald Trump, last week proposed that Tyson buy his way out of jail by fighting again and donating his take to Indiana rape centers. This scenario will not unfold, even if Tyson could find an opponent (Holyfield, says his promoter, Dan Duva, will not fight Tyson). Bert Randolph Sugar, publisher of Boxing Illustrated, gives three reasons: “The state athletic commissions will lift his license. No hotel chain will sponsor it. And the event would have no advertising. You just can’t see the announcer saying, ‘And in this corner, the convicted rapist . . . Mike Tyson!’ “

Faced with a trial that could end his career and shred their meal ticket, Tyson’s advisers made the fatal mistake of underestimating the opposition. In the mid-’80s, when the young fighter got into trouble, his people would speak to the local police commissioner, give him a few ringside seats for the next bout . . . no more trouble. The Tyson camp may have tried that tactic again, offering Washington $750,000 to withdraw her complaint. That wouldn’t happen here — not in Indianapolis, not with this accuser and not with Gregory Garrison, a smart barrister with a homespun air, whom the local D.A. had hired as special prosecutor.

Team Tyson, represented in court by Washington attorney Vincent Fuller, seemed unimpressed by the prosecution — as if Garrison were Buster Douglas just before Iron Mike got tanked in Tokyo two years ago. “There were one or two members of Fuller’s staff,” notes Garrison, “who did not think us country bumpkins could find our asses with both hands.” They were wrong about him, and about Washington. “She’s a good kid with a pure heart and a tremendous amount of courage,” Garrison says. “And she shined like a new penny in front of that jury.”

Bad Counsel. “Fuller is an exceptionally fine attorney,” says Robert Simels, a New York City lawyer who has represented many athletes. “But he was probably not the right choice to bring into Indianapolis. They certainly needed a strong local female counsel. A woman could have handled parts of the examination — the questions about panty shields — which are much more sensitive for a male attorney to be hitting a proposed rape victim with.”

Simels spots defense blunders throughout the process, from jury selection to the refusal to call a key witness — Tyson’s bodyguard — to Fuller’s loud, agitated summation. “They should not have let Tyson testify at the grand jury,” Simels argues. “Then they compounded it by allowing Mike to come up with a different story during the trial.” Tyson appeared to be lying, and lying stupidly, fulfilling any juror’s suspicions about the boxer’s brutality. Notes Garrison: “You couldn’t look at this delicate little thing and imagine her having Mike Tyson say, ‘Hey, I want to f— you,’ and her saying, ‘Sure, call me.’ You just said, ‘Aw, come on now.’ “

Bad Timing. In part, Tyson lost because the evidence, as presented to the jury, was against him. Garrison, while happy to sunbathe in the limelight, insists that the case won itself: “There’s nothing like being right to make it winning.” But it’s also plausible that Tyson was standing trial — if not in the jurors’ minds, then in the docket of public opinion — for crimes other than his. Crimes racial, judicial and sexual. To some, Tyson was the black street creep who holds urban civility at knife point. To others, he was the last chance for society to atone for its dismissal of the charges against powerful men like Clarence Thomas and William Kennedy Smith.

To still others, Tyson was every celebrity athlete, pro or amateur, who has misused his stardom by abusing women. Just last week a lacrosse player at St. John’s University in New York City pleaded guilty to forcing alcohol on a fellow student and then sexually assaulting her. Two of the player’s teammates had pleaded guilty to lesser charges; three others were acquitted when the jury could not decide whether the woman had given consent — though she could not have consented, legally, since she had been made drunk. (The players were white, the victim black.)

So the Tyson verdict is not only a surprise but a desperately needed balm to those who have suffered an athlete’s educated hands. Says Barbara Otto, a director of the 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women: “Tyson’s conviction sends a message to athletes that it’s not acceptable to abuse the rights of women who work with them.”

Before sentencing, scheduled for March 27, Tyson will undergo examination, and both sides will offer depositions. Garrison deflects the tantalizing rumors that Washington will appear at the hearing to plead that Tyson has already suffered enough. He expects “probably not a demand for much of anything. Except that she wants Tyson to get help.” Garrison seems certain of one thing: “He will go to jail.”

And when he comes out, he will be allowed to fight again. “If,” Sugar says, “he gets out alive. There’s never the guarantee that somebody in the Michigan City, Ind., prison who’s in on four 99-year terms without the chance of parole won’t want to prove that he, and not Mike Tyson, is the baddest man on the planet.”

Some will take ironic satisfaction in the thought that behind iron bars, Iron Mike may finally discover that bad is not beautiful.

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