Within weeks after O.J. Simpson was charged this summer with murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, the National Football League sent counselors to its 28 team training camps to talk to players for the first time about domestic violence.

Lem Burnham, who heads the NFL's employee assistance program, said the lectures were not prompted by the June 12 murders and renewed national attention given to a 1989 domestic violence charge against Simpson.

"That particular topic was on my laundry list of things to cover," Burnham said. "So, yes, we would have covered it anyway, eventually. Because I was aware long before the Simpson case of what an insidious problem this is."

The problem is reflected in the number of football players who have been accused of violence against women in recent years.

A review by The Washington Post has found 141 men -- 56 current and former professional football players and 85 college football athletes -- who have been reported to police for violent behavior toward women since Jan. 1, 1989, when Simpson beat his wife during a pre-dawn argument.

The three-month review also found allegations by victims and prosecutors that football players were given preferential treatment -- sometimes by judges, sometimes by police -- and that NFL and club executives were reluctant to discipline athletes who committed crimes that did not directly affect the business of professional football.

Vance Johnson, a former star wide receiver, was one of eight members of the 1990 and 1991 Denver Broncos who was charged with violent crimes against women, ranging from rape to battery to assault.

"I was dirt," Johnson, a thrice-married, self-confessed former wife beater, said in a recent interview. "One time I pushed my first wife, she fell, hit her head and lost consciousness. I was scared to death she had died."

Seven of the eight Broncos, including Johnson, made plea bargains and only two spent more than a week in jail. One player was acquitted. Johnson was jailed for ramming his car into his estranged wife's car while she was inside.

Neither the Broncos nor the NFL disciplined the players. "A lot of the guys on that team were basically thugs," said Broncos running back Reggie Rivers, recalling his 1991 rookie season.

NFL Seldom Punishes

The Post's review -- based on a computer-generated search of newspapers in more than 40 cities, as well as interviews and police and court documents -- found that 48 of the 141 men reported to police were convicted. Eighteen of these men were incarcerated.

Eleven current and former players were acquitted. Sixty-one cases were dropped either for insufficient evidence or at the request of the alleged victim. Twenty-one cases are pending.

While universities often suspend athletes from competition after a criminal conviction, the NFL often allows them to play on.

"We're not the criminal justice system," said Greg Aiello, the NFL's communications director. "We can't cure every ill in society. You know, we're putting on football games. And unless it impacts on the business, we have to be very careful {from a legal standpoint} about disciplinary action we take.

"A player has certain rights too."

Forty-three of the men accused of gender violence were on NFL team rosters at the time of the alleged incidents. About 1,500 players are employed by NFL teams each season.

Aiello said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has disciplined only one player for a gender violence-related offense: former Eagles offensive tackle Kevin Allen, who was denied reentry into the league in 1990 after serving a 33-month prison term for rape.

"Gambling and drug {disciplinary} policies were instituted because they have a direct and detrimental effect on the game itself," the NFL's Burnham said. " ... But this domestic violence thing is different. It's a society thing and there are laws that govern it."

Burnham added that while he considers domestic violence a "big" and "bad" and "insidious" national problem, "It's not nearly as big {among football players} as the O.J. Simpson case -- that is, the media circus -- is leading people to believe."

Burnham, a sports psychologist who twice led the Philadelphia Eagles in quarterback sacks in the late 1970s, said he suspects football players are less violent than other men.

"Football is an aggressive sport, I wouldn't necessarily say violent," he said. "But we are taught to control our aggression as a population of people. If we weren't you wouldn't see a football game when you turn the TV on. You would see an all-out, bench-emptying brawl for 60 minutes."

Searching for Reasons

The Post's review probably did not uncover all accusations against current and former football players. Many rape and sexual assault incidents are never reported to police and many charges filed with university authorities are not revealed publicly, according to judicial experts, victim advocates and sociologists who study gender violence.

These experts emphasize that gender violence is a far-reaching societal problem, not limited to any one group of men. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that in 1992 and 1993 there were more than 1 million sexual attacks, including 335,000 rapes, in this country.

Experts also agree there is no statistically reliable way to determine on a national basis whether football players are committing more violent crimes than other men.

University-based researchers have variously linked athlete violence to alcohol use; family and socioeconomic backgrounds; a feeling of entitlement encouraged by the male bonding inherent on sports teams; and use of anabolic steroids, the muscle-building but mood-changing drugs that are banned by college and professional leagues.

"Football in particular attracts and self-selects men who have a tendency to be aggressive," said Edward Gondolf, a University of Indiana (Pa.) sociology professor and author. "There's no doubt football reinforces and rewards that aggression and there's no doubt it spills over into their lives outside of the locker room."

Since 1990, three studies on college campuses have found, to varying degrees, that male student-athletes in high-profile sports such as football and basketball are reported for sexual assaults more than other male students.

One study, released last week by researchers at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that male student-athletes composed 3.3 percent of the total male population at 10 large universities but represented 19 percent of the men reported to campus officials for sexual assault from 1991 to 1993. Sixty-seven percent of the athletes reported for sexual assault played football or basketball, the study said.

"I think the aggressiveness in sports -- just making the play, charging past people or dominating somebody physically -- really needs to be separated {by athletes} from appropriate off-field behavior," said Tom Jackson, a University of Arkansas psychology professor and rape counselor who has studied athlete behavior.

Learned Behavior

Johnson, the ex-Bronco who was signed and waived this year by the San Diego Chargers, admitted in a recently published book that he repeatedly beat his girlfriends and first two wives and had hundreds of extramarital affairs.

But how did he become abusive?

Johnson sighed softly as he considered the question one afternoon this summer while his third wife, Holly, and their 2-year-old daughter, Paris, played in the pool area of a San Diego hotel.

"It's painful to discuss," Johnson said, his eyes tearing. "But from three years of therapy I learned it probably came from having seen and grown up around physical and emotional abuse."

Johnson paused, then spoke of a childhood filled with chaos in a low-income, high-crime neighborhood of Trenton, N.J.

"I always felt like my mother and my grandmother and aunts were wonderful women and never did anything wrong," he said. "But they were targets of domestic violence. I saw this craziness, the men partying and having affairs and the fighting and screaming and beatings. ... Everyone went out all night long. ...

"The violence could have been related to alcohol or just to a black man feeling inferior, feeling like he didn't have any power. Work was tough. Getting a job was tough. The kids were living in poverty. So they'd just be abusive. They just couldn't handle the pain.

"And I became part of this chain."

The football culture often has seemed to condone the physical mistreatment and sexual exploitation of women, according to several researchers who have studied the behavior of athletes.

"Men in general expect that, under appropriate conditions, they can get sex from women. That's how it works," said Mary P. Koss, a University of Arizona professor, author and researcher. "Athletes add on to that expectation some different type of entitlement. You can see from a very early age how people who excel in sports are elevated."

Former NFL linebacker Dave Meggysey once wrote of how his college coaches in the 1960s thought it was "healthy and manly" to get drunk, pick up a girl, have sex and "maybe even rough her up a bit."

Jim Brown, the 1960s-era Hall of Fame running back, wrote in his autobiography how he slapped women -- "In a perfect world, I don't think any man should slap anyone," he noted -- and participated in group-sex parties.

Last weekend, the U.S. Military Academy suspended three Army football players who were accused of groping female cadets at a pep rally. Some players not involved in the incident said they heard teammates laughing and joking about the matter in the locker room.

NFL players say women often are degraded in locker-room conversations.

"It's a fairly common thing, guys bragging about how they keep their wives and girlfriends under control," said the Broncos' Rivers, who co-authored Vance Johnson's book. "Guys will say 'I do this' and 'I do that' but 'I would never let my wife or girlfriend do that' and 'If I caught her I'd beat her up.' "

"Some guys treat women like an ornament or piece of meat," said Miami Dolphins cornerback Troy Vincent. "We feel as athletes -- some of us -- that we're special. A person is making big money and he's on TV so he feels like he always has to be right. And a little woman, what she says doesn't mean anything. It's like: This is what I want! And you're going to give it to me! Or I'm going to take it!"

Too Many Temptations

Some NFL players say that as a group they may appear to commit more crimes than other men because they are targets of intensive media scrutiny.

"It's not just an athlete thing," said 6-foot-3, 280-pound Harvey Armstrong, a former Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle who was charged last year with battery, criminal confinement and sexual battery against his ex-girlfriend. "But athletes get the attention. When the O.J. Simpson {murder} case came out, I said, 'Oh, man, here comes another can of worms.' "

Armstrong, who pleaded guilty to criminal confinement and received a suspended sentence, said athletes also face more temptations than other men.

"You tend to go to more functions," Armstrong, now a salesman for Coca-Cola, said in a recent interview. "You tend to be around more drinking. You tend to be around more women. You know, alcohol and women can always create a problem if you don't handle it right."

The perception that athletes may be more abusive than other men has been raised at the Simpson trial , where potential jurors were asked in a court questionnaire whether they believed "people with professional lives that involve physical confrontation ... are more susceptible to imposing violent solutions in their personal lives."

On New Year's Day 1989, Simpson allegedly kicked and struck his wife with "open and closed fists and pulled her hair" while screaming "I'll kill you," according to a police report. Nicole complained to police that no action had been taken against her husband after eight previous 911 calls.

The next day Nicole asked that no charges be filed. Prosecutors filed charges anyway, and Simpson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery. His no-jail, plea-bargain agreement included two years' probation, psychiatric counseling, 120 hours of community service, a $500 donation to a battered women's organization and a $200 fine.

For Simpson the fallout was minimal. He was not required to appear at his sentencing, and the judge allowed him to complete his counseling over the phone. Not only did Simpson retain lucrative jobs with Hertz and NBC Sports, he was hired to appear in a motivational video, released in January of this year, that purports to demonstrate "why it pays to be good to each other."

Playing the Game

The Post's review found repeated similarities between the 1989 Simpson case and others.

Like Simpson, ex-Colts tackle Armstrong attributed his behavior to alcohol. "I blame myself," he said. "But if I wasn't drinking the whole incident wouldn't have happened. Alcohol makes you feel cocky, more courageous."

Like Simpson, many athletes seemed to get second and third chances from their employers.

Three current Los Angeles Raiders have been accused of abusing women: offensive tackle Gerald Perry, who has served a jail term and made two civil lawsuit settlements, one for $245,000; linebacker Aaron Wallace, who last year made a $60,000 settlement with a Dallas woman who alleged in a lawsuit that she had been sexually assaulted by Wallace; and defensive end Scott Davis, who has been arrested three times on battery charges against women but never convicted. The three athletes have denied abusing women.

"Well, I think all of us have had problems," Al LoCasale, a longtime Raiders executive, said of his club's willingness to employ men who have allegedly abused women. "All of us who have been married have had some problems with our wives at some point. In most cases, they don't become violent, hopefully."

LoCasale said the Raiders, like many other NFL clubs, focus more on illegal drug use than gender violence in their screening of potential employees. "I don't think you make any more effort to check it out than you do as to whether or not the guy was a draft dodger," LoCasale said.

John Poley, Denver's chief domestic violence prosecutor, said he was dismayed the Broncos didn't publicly discipline any of their athletes who were convicted of violent crimes against women.

"The NFL will fine players thousands of dollars just for arguing with a referee," Poley said recently. "But it also has a responsibility to deal with community concerns. Rightly or wrongly, athletes are considered role models. People go to malls and pay money to get their names signed on pieces of paper."

The Arizona Cardinals have kept defensive back Lorenzo Lynch in their starting lineup even though he was sentenced in September to a work-release program for violating his probation from a 1992 assault of a man. Lynch violated his probation by allegedly causing physical injury to his girlfriend and failing to complete the community service he had been ordered to perform.

The work-release sentence requires Lynch to spend five nights a week in jail. Early in the sentence Cardinals assistant coach Rob Ryan reviewed game strategies with Lynch at the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Jail. "Whatever it takes," Ryan said. "We want to get our best players on the field."

Above the Law?

Like Simpson, some athlete-defendants received what appeared to be preferential treatment from judges and police.

In 1990, then-Broncos tight end Clarence Kay got an apparent break from a judge after a domestic violence incident involving his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Spillman.

After being arrested for allegedly breaking into Spillman's home, Kay was released from Denver City Jail on bond after only five hours, allowing him to join his teammates on a flight to Tokyo for a preseason game.

Domestic violence charges in Denver usually result in an overnight jail stay while the defendant awaits the next day's bond hearing.

"We were livid," said Poley, the Denver prosecutor. "Mr. Kay got a courtesy that's not even extended to police and sheriff's officers who are accused of domestic violence."

Kay was given a deferred judgment and sentence that required no additional jail time. The case was later dismissed.

On Feb. 10, 1993, Spillman called police to report that Kay -- by then, no longer a Bronco -- was again harassing her.

"I have had multiple bruises and cracked ribs. I'm terrified of him," Spillman wrote in a sworn complaint against Kay. "Last week he climbed into my interior patio and refused to leave for 3 1/2 hours, forcing me to hide in my basement. ... He has climbed to my top level balcony many times ... once punching me in the face while I was asleep. ... This has been going on for six years. ... He thinks he owns me."

Kay told Denver probation officials he merely tried to "restrain" Spillman because she had been "scratching and swinging" at him. Spillman obtained a temporary restraining order that directed Kay not to contact her. But he did, and in February of this year Kay pleaded no contest to violating the order. Kay was placed on probation; he declined to be interviewed for this report.

Meanwhile, in January, then-Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tim Barnett was released from jail on appeal after receiving a 10-day sentence for his second domestic violence-related conviction in 13 months. The release allowed Barnett to appear in a playoff game and catch an overtime-forcing pass.

"It tends to send a message that if you've got the money, you can manipulate the system. That's not right," the Johnson County (Kan.) district attorney, Paul Morrison, told reporters at the time. "Mr. Barnett needs to be doing his time, not because he's a Chief but because he keeps breaking the law."

The Chiefs didn't cut Barnett from their roster until June, shortly after he was arrested on a third sexual assault charge -- this one involving a 14-year-old hotel maid. Barnett has pleaded not guilty; he is awaiting trial.

Getting Protection

Like Nicole Simpson, Kim Williams said she was frustrated in the late '80s that Boston-area police didn't take action against her then-husband, former New England Patriots running back John Stephens, after she had made several domestic violence-related complaints.

"The police didn't even offer me any counseling about my rights," Williams said in a recent interview. "It was basically, 'Well, you calm down.' If you think about it, the local police work for the team {on game days}. So it's all one big collection of people trying to protect the player and the team."

Stephens did not respond to interview requests made through his former football agent, Robert Fayne, and two of his lawyers. Stephens recently was charged with raping a woman in Kansas City; he has pleaded not guilty.

In Phoenix last year, Vikki Nunn, estranged wife of Colts linebacker Freddie Joe Nunn, told police she feared her husband would kill her if they didn't arrest him after he allegedly choked her. Vikki Nunn also told police they had done "nothing" after a previous incident.

This time, Nunn was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. He admitted breaking a gun-cabinet door in their house but denied harming his wife.

Like Nicole Simpson, Vikki Nunn later sought to have the charges dropped. "It was just arguing. ... There was no pushing or shoving," she told reporters. The charge was dismissed after Nunn agreed to enter an anger-control program.

Domestic violence experts say victims often back away from allegations because they fear a conviction could disrupt their families' lives. Wives of pro athletes may be more likely to drop charges, these experts say, because a court appearance could end up on the 6 o'clock news and ultimately destroy a career and comfortable lifestyle.

Combating Attitudes

Dozens of athletes, prosecutors, counselors and other people interviewed for this report agreed that the O.J. Simpson case has raised public consciousness about gender violence.

"I think some good will come out of it: maybe tougher penalties for men who abuse women," said Dolphins wide receiver Irving Fryar, who missed a 1985 playoff game after cutting two of his fingers with a knife during an argument with his then-pregnant wife.

But not everyone agreed that this new awareness will change the behavior of some athletes.

Recalling Simpson's 1989 plea bargain, the NFL's Burnham said, "I can see young people saying, 'Wow, because he was a celebrity, he really got away with this stuff. So becoming a celebrity will certainly permit me certain privileges within the realm of the law.' "

Kim Williams also has doubts. She recalled a visit to the house of an Atlanta Falcons lineman several weeks after his team had heard the NFL's first domestic violence lecture this summer.

"I was sitting {with the player's wife} in their kitchen when he came home," she said. "I got up to leave but before I got out of the house I saw him slamming her all over the place. The neighbors came over, then the police. When the police saw who it was and the player told them 'I've got it under control,' the police just left."

Vance Johnson wonders too if the attention given to the Simpson case has changed some players' attitudes.

Less than two months after Simpson's arrest this summer, Johnson said he was greeted at the Chargers' training camp by a player who said, for everyone in the locker room to hear, "I want to be like Vance Johnson!"

The player then made a crude, rhyming joke -- unprintable in this newspaper -- about Johnson's reckless history with women.

"I just shrunk down in my seat when he said it," Johnson said. "It was embarrassing. But the comment showed me something. Unfortunately, there are lots of guys out there who still think this is something to laugh about."

The Washington Post's News Research department contributed to this report.

Since the Jan. 1, 1989 incident that led to O.J. Simpson pleading no contest to spousal battery, 140 other current and former pro football payers and college football athletes have been reported to police for alleged violent behavior toward women. Some of these men have been reported for multiple offenses, bringing the total number of alleged offenses to 156.

A breakdown of the 156 alleged incidents:

RAPE/SEXUAL ASSAULT/OTHER SEX-RELATED:

REPORTED TO POLICE: ....... 99

CASES DISMISSED ........... 52

ACQUITTALS AT JURY TRIALS .. 9

CONVICTIONS/PLEA BARGAINS . 29

JAIL SENTENCES SERVED ..... 15

CASES PENDING .............. 9

ASSAULT/BATTERY/DOMESTIC VIOLENCE:

REPORTED TO POLICE: ....... 57

CASES DISMISSED ........... 20

ACQUITTALS AT JURY TRIALS .. 3

CONVICTIONS/PLEA BARGAINS . 22

JAIL SENTENCES SERVED ...... 3

CASES PENDING ............. 12

ALL ACCUSATIONS:

REPORTED TO POLICE: ...... 156

CASES DISMISSED ........... 72

ACQUITTALS AT JURY TRIALS . 12

CONVICTIONS/PLEA BARGAINS . 51

JAIL SENTENCES SERVED ..... 18

CASES PENDING ............. 21

SOURCE: Compiled by Washington Post Staff Writer Bill Brubaker from a computer-assisted search of newspapers in more than 40 cities by The Post's News Research department; police and court documents; and interviews with police and court officials.