By Jason Keidel
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“I’m not black. I’m O.J.”
More than anything that was uttered by or about O.J. Simpson, those five words say so much about him, and us. Perhaps he had a more sinister meaning behind them, but not for millions of kids — like yours truly — who grew up worshipping football, and the Juice, during the 1970s.
Indeed. At his celebrated, pastoral peak, Simpson may not have been one of us, but he was ours. Kids of all colors, from New York City to Florida to California, wore his jersey with wide smiles, running the ball against imaginary tacklers, dodging this pole, ducking this branch or hurdling that rock.
As teens, we wanted to be the Juice. As adults, we could see ourselves with the Juice. He was impossibly charming and gifted yet seemed wholly accessible and humble.
We could see ourselves at that bar, kicking it with Juice and Arnold Palmer, debating the merits of a Hertz rental car. It feels fatuous to compare anyone — especially Simpson — to Muhammad Ali now, but there was a time when Simpson smashed that high, Caucasian ceiling of prime-time television, one of the few who transcended race and class. When it was hard, if not impossible, to add colorful strokes to the milky-white American mosaic, O.J. jogged into our homes as the perfect pitchman, our TV and football friend. He was our guy because he just carried it like that.
Now, in a much more uncomfortable way, he’s still ours.
Truly by accident, by a sad confluence of tragic events, Simpson became a symbolic intersection of race, sports and society. As football fans, we eagerly await the weekend, when we can leave our troubles at our front door and pick them back up Monday morning. Then Simpson came and blurred the lines between weekdays and weekends, between our private consumption of sports and public opinions of America.
We didn’t know about the shrieking 911 calls made by Nicole Brown, running for her life in her own house. We didn’t know about the assaults or the stalking or the menace of it all. We only knew that cool cat who could gallop through defenses and airports with equal aplomb, who could make us laugh in “The Naked Gun” or give a flawless sideline report during a football game. Simpson forced us to abandon our puritanical notions of the athletic hero.
Now O.J. has gone from the multicultural character to caricature. Gone was his football physique, replaced by the obnoxious 50-something caught in an endless midlife crisis, the chunky drunk doing rap videos in Miami while coked up and flanked by babes. He’s the guy who played golf while his wife lay in a grave while he was supposedly looking for the real killer, while he wrote the “If I Did It” book. While he rubbed our faces in the facade and charade that was his trial, verdict and mockery of a life after it.
But Simpson had to keep running, keep pushing, keep stretching the membranes of truth, logic and justice. So sloppy and self-centered, he finally went too far. In some hotel room in Las Vegas. Surely you saw the footage from the hotel lobby camera of General Simpson storming the joint, leading his army of misfits on a most felonious mission. Something out of one of his slapstick comedies, except it was real.
Some dispute about memorabilia, which led to a slew of conspiracy charges — conspiracy to commit armed robbery, conspiracy to kidnap, conspiracy to ruin what little was left of his tortured life. Nevada threw the book at him, and the long arm of Johnny Law finally did something so few linebackers could — get O.J. down, and keep him down.
Was it letter-of-the-law justice the second time around? Maybe not. But there was nary a noise of indignity from the masses when he was buried in the slammer for being so stupid. No doubt he got more years than someone less renowned or arrogant. But no one complained. Call it a karmic tax sprinkled across his bland prison dinner.
You saw his smug parole hearing, which he treated like a PTA meeting. We were astonished while watching him yuk it up with cops, lawyers and board members. He may not be the most beloved athlete in the nation, but he still acts like he is.
Now, nine years later, Simpson, 70, is a free man, released from prison Sunday. He’s no longer the Juice, or even O.J. Just an old man. A tired, sanctimonious slob who no longer has his looks, his gifts or our respect. But he’s still ours. Simpson is no longer a role model, but in a way, he is an inverted billboard for truth. A parable for every young man who worships celebrities as real people, for every young man or woman who thinks if we can attain celebrity, if we can reach that absurd social orbit that’s never high enough, we will be happy.
Will Simpson stay in Nevada or move back to Florida? Who cares? The only people who should have any profound interest in his affairs are the real victims of his alleged barbarism, like the Goldman family, still trying to collect those millions awarded to them from their civil suit. Our interest can only be voyeuristic, or perverse, or pathetic.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel