Vail Daily column: O.J. Simpson still tells us a lot about ourselves
Wow, we’re feeling nostalgic.
I woke up on Thursday, turned on CNN and O.J. Simpson was all over the news.
It is scary when the events you remember clearly as part of your life are becoming “history” for others.
I took a course in college called, “History of the 1960s.” Pop was rather grumpy about that and retitled the course, “Nick Freud: The College Years.”
And with ESPN’s documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” and TNT’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” coming out this past year, I find myself turning into Pop — The O.J. Trial: Chris Freud: The College Years.
(By the way, ESPN’s five-part “30 for 30” series on O.J. is very much worth a watch, while the TNT drama was simply humorous for its casting … Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey?)
As we view Simpson now — regardless of what the jury said in 1995, he killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman and the armed robbery in 2007 in which O.J. was convicted was, American justice, as legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker, “a karma-based organism of retribution for unpunished bad deeds,” — it’s hard to remember that The Juice was once a cultural athletic icon, a Heisman winner at USC and one of the greatest running backs ever in the NFL.
The NBA’s Charles Barkley had a whole advertising campaign consisting of “I am not a role model.” It was part of the Round Mound of Rebound being the early anti-hero.
And while athletes probably shouldn’t be role models — parents, teachers, community figures, etc. should be — they are.
This is what makes Simpson such an influential figure in American culture. Coming to prominence with USC during the late 1960s, when the country was divided by an unpopular war and issues of race, O.J. transcended politics and race.
Before Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Simpson was the first African-American to bust the color barrier in advertising. A black guy running through an airport was a threat in the eyes of white people during the 1970s, unless it was O.J. in a Hertz commercial.
He was in the landmark miniseries, “Roots,” and assorted movies from the very cheesy “Towering Inferno” to “The Naked Gun” trilogy, the first of which remains a comedy classic.
As condescending as it sounds to today’s ears, O.J., in white America’s collective eye, was “one of the friendly blacks,” or “one of the good ones.” Again, that is a hideous way of talking, but that was — and in some ways may still be — an issue in our country.
So America cracked apart on racial lines during the 1995 trial when Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers used racial bias as a defense for his eventual acquittal of his ex-wife and Goldman. (We will stipulate that the Los Angeles Police Department had a spotty record on race, yet Simpson’s attorneys never established how the LAPD could be so incompetent in the handling of some evidence, but so coordinated in “planting” blood in his Bronco.)
Before that trial, who really saw O.J. as black?
Of course, in retrospect, the O.J. Simpson facade was artificial. The warning signs were there. Domestic violence wasn’t in the public eye as much as it is now. Nicole Simpson was living through hell and Brown likely was simply a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
O.J. wasn’t the first athlete to fall from grace nor is he the last. One can only imagine the stories of Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, had the old-boy network of the press not covered up for them and their off-the-field activities.
Tiger Woods seemed like the perfect athlete, transcending racial barriers and making the world of golf accessible to many. Now? Not so much.
Yes, we like to put athletes on a pedestal and then tear them down. It’s human nature.
Then again, we are dealing with humans, who, by nature, are inherently flawed. In the age of social media, we see more of athletes and celebrities than we probably want, but it breaks down that mythical wall that stars are different.
But we are still looking for “The Next,” the next greatest superstar of sport, the next hero to take our minds off of our regular lives. And when not looking forward toward this streaking light, we look back with nostalgia.
It’s a dangerous cycle.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.