By Jason Keidel
It almost feels futile, presumptuous or preposterous to write about O.J. Simpson. What are we supposed to say, think or feel about the most polarizing sports person — heck, American — of the last 50 years? Simpson touches every cultural nerve, a corporeal ballot box on class, race, privilege and justice.
What’s even harder is explaining to those under 40 how beloved Simpson really was. Just as Millennials can’t fathom why Muhammad Ali was loathed in the 1960s, how do we explain the absolute adoration we felt for Simpson the following two decades? Every American boy with a football and a pulse spent some part of the ’70s pretending to be the Juice, cradling that pigskin like a newborn, dodging imagined tacklers, scoring another touchdown before 80,000 frothing fans.
If you didn’t have his Afro, you had his jersey, or his running style. We mimicked the way he dashed through airports and hopped those suitcases in his Hertz commercials. Even as a monolithic Steelers fan and ardent devotee of Franco Harris, I watched Juice slice the Steel Curtain with silent reverence.
So when we learned he was charged with double-murder, along with that mountain of evidence, it shredded our old-world sensibilities. O.J. Simpson wasn’t just a fine football player, he was the emblem of the American Dream. He was everything a boy coveted — young, handsome, obscenely athletic and absurdly charming.
Bob Costas was interviewed by Larry King shortly after the iconic Bronco chase. Not only was Costas — who worked with Simpson on countless sporting events — as shocked as we were by the surreality of it all, he also said that Simpson was as nice to the gopher as he was the director of any given television set. Like the rest of us, Costas didn’t know Simpson was already a habitual abuser of his wife, nor did he knew Simpson had designs on killing her (allegedly).
So no matter how much time you spend studying the man, your living room morphing into a surrogate classroom while you watch the twin epics on the fallen star, you can’t possible feel the impact or import of O.J. Simpson.
Fast forward to 2007 and ’08, when Simpson was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. You need not be a legal scholar to realize his 33-year sentence was implicit payback for his 1995 acquittal. If you or I were convicted of the same crime, we would not have done a fraction of that time, nor the nine years Simpson has already served. But you didn’t find much sympathy for the man.
How do we reconcile all of this? Or the smug, unrepentant Simpson whose gaseous monologues almost put the Nevada Parole Board to sleep yesterday? Maybe when you’ve been a celebrity for a half a century you’re simply detached from the normal legal and moral contours that guide the rest of us. Even after doing nine years — albeit a relatively soft nine years — Simpson handled himself like a man whose release was assured. And it was.
So O.J. Simpson will be a free man in October. He will be 70 years old, deep into life’s back nine. A fitting metaphor for a golf-crazed geriatric who will enter a world of whirlwind social media, the tentacles of Twitter and TMZ sure to strangle Simpson the moment he leaves prison. Between the conditions of his release and the suffocating scrutiny from society, Simpson will not be a free man as the rest of us know it.
Surely he will get offers for interviews and books and tell-alls already after we’ve heard it all. And he can live off his NFL pension, whatever that is, and not worry about a single nickel being appropriated by the Brown or Goldman families, who are owed millions from that civil court judgement that found Simpson liable in the deaths of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.
It’s absurd for anyone to even suggest how you should feel or process this. Just be happy you’re not O.J. Simpson. And if this teaches us anything about the pitfalls of fame or wealth or any and all trappings of celebrity…
It won’t. Folks, after all this, still worship O.J. Simpson. Which, as always, says way more about us than about those we we watch or admire.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.