Nancy, Tonya and Tabloid Culture, 20 Years Later

| February 4, 2014
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Photo: Vincent Amalvy/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Vincent Amalvy/AFP/Getty Images

“Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan attacked.”

I still remember first hearing the news blaring from the television set tuned to Hard Copy. You remember Hard Copy, don’t you? It was the tabloid television show that sensationalized the news and news-ified the sensational. If a celebrity was accused of something or a scandal was brewing, you could bet that Hard Copy and its team of scare tactic reporters would be there. The Kerrigan saga had all the makings of ratings gold.

January 6, 1994.  After a practice session for the upcoming National Championships in a rink in Detroit, Kerrigan was struck on the right thigh inches above her knee by a man with a baton who then fled the scene. The incident was even caught on tape. It was this footage of Kerrigan, clutching her leg and crying “Why, why?” through tears, that went whatever the ’90s version of viral was. Hard Copy had the footage instantly; the attack was the lead story.

Over the next few weeks, the entire ordeal played out publicly in the yellow tabloid television spotlight, with Hard Copy leading the way among American broadcasts. We would soon discover that Tonya Harding, another Olympic skating hopeful, was involved in the attack on Kerrigan through her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhard who had hired Shane Stant to bash Kerrigan’s knee. Luckily, Kerrigan’s leg was only bruised, not broken, but the injury from the attack forced her to withdraw from the National Championships. Ironically, Harding won that event and both skaters were chosen for the 1994 Olympic team.

The ’90s were a tabloid decade like no other, as though all the accumulated scandal from the first 90 years of the twentieth century had been brewing, only to explode like a faulty septic tank before the dawn of the new millennium. In 1991, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment allegations hit the media and Thomas’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court were marred by details of his alleged crude and unwanted overtures to Hill. In 1992, 17-year-old “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the wife of her lover, 36-year-old mechanic Joey Buttafuoco, in the face on her doorstep. Then there were the divorces. Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson were going at in court and in the media, the House of Windsor was having problems with both Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage and with the marriage of Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah, the Duchess of York. Last but not least, who could forget the cesspool that was the Trump marriage dissolution; all the money in the world couldn’t buy the Trumps a happy ending.

Throughout all these scandals, one show epitomized the era’s new public obsession with the sordid scandals of the rich and famous, and even the not so. Hard Copy was your one-stop shopping for the kind of “news” that pushed the boundaries of taste and the threshold for what the American public could stomach. By the time the Simpson murder happened in the summer of 1994 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal closed the decade, Hard Copy had been feeding us a steady diet of rabid meat that would lay the framework for the foaming-at-the-mouth Perez Hiltons and TMZs of the new century.

Photo: Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

Photo: Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

But back to Nancy and Tonya. We all know the story by now: Harding placed eighth in Lillehammer (after a shoelace snafu during her routine) and Kerrigan won the silver medal that year for women’s singles. A balletic Ukrainian skater named Oksana Baiul took home the gold that year, seemingly tiptoeing to the winner’s podium behind the blinding media frenzy surrounding the Americans. In February, Gillooly took a plea in exchange for his testimony against Harding. Gillooly, Stant, Eckhardt, and getaway car driver Derrick Smith all subsequently served time in prison for the attack. After the games in March of 1994, Harding pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers and received three years probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $160,000 fine. After being forced to resign from every major skating organization in the United States, Harding became persona non grata in the sport.

It wasn’t just the Olympics that were changed with that hit to Kerrigan’s leg; the entire culture seemed to slink down to the Hard Copy programming model for the rest of the decade, a hit the media in many ways is still trying to recover from. The players may have changed, but the tactics haven’t. More than any other scandal of the era, from Michael Jackson’s child molestation allegations to even the newly revived Woody Allen/Mia Farrow ordeal, the Kerrigan attack came to sum up the media culture of the ’90s.

The Olympics are literally a world stage; America’s dirty laundry was aired for everyone to see and an event that was supposed to symbolize the best in teamwork and athletic determination came to expose the ugliness of competition and the underhanded games some were willing to play for an unfair advantage. But the dirtiest laundry of all was the media culture that turned Kerrigan’s nightmare into the soap opera circus it became. Looking back now, it was another step in the loss of the culture’s innocence that has led us to ritually crave human tragedy on a scale of consumption that only seems to get hungrier.

Harding went on to milk her ill-gotten fame for whatever quick bucks were available, from celebrity boxing tournaments to a sex tape with Gillooly. Kerrigan for the most part went on to the quiet career of a post-Olympian: marrying, skating professionally and eventually commentating. Although the players may have moved on 20 years later, on the eve of another Winter Olympics, the audience is still in recovery.

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About the Author ()

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.
  • Jill Ellen Glaser

    Great observation about how the Harding/Kerrigan scandal played a pivotal role in tabloid culture. What an interesting thing to think about. I just watched the ESPN 30 for 30, “The Price of Gold” about the incident (which I recommend). I feel sleazy to be fascinated with the story, but the soap opera-ness of the whole ordeal is hard to resist. Looking back, it just seems like such a tragedy for everyone involved. I wonder how it would have played out on social media and the 24 hour news networks of today. The vultures would probably circle even more ravenously, but would the story be stifled by the noise of all the other sensationalized headlines? It would definitely give internet trolls plenty of fodder.