The story of O.J. Simpson is one of strength and celebrity. This is so to both his staunchest critics and his most dedicated disciples.
Those inclined to believe O.J. slithered from the law’s grasp in his 1995 murder trial through a host of sinister, deceptive means imagine the former star running back as one gilded by stardom. In him, they see a man of great stature who mutilated those in his path and employed a craven campaign of racial victimization to elude justice.
Those invested in his innocence contrarily imagine Simpson as a crafty executor of American privilege; one who used tools typically not afforded affluent black men to best an oppressive legal system and emerge the chivalrous Adonis they came to love.
There are, too, those who set up camp somewhere in the middle: those who believe neither in the innocence of O.J. nor the innocence of the system that tried him. Even these people, however, will concede that Simpson’s power ― both his physical power and his social power — added layers to a trial complexly intersected by race and gender politics.
Simpson’s charted mistreatment of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, converged with the notorious history of the Los Angeles Police Department to provide an environment for the most sensationalized news event in American history.
But there are reasons to believe that America has, in significant ways, mutated beyond the narratives that drove the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 and colored the person Simpson was between then and his ultimate imprisonment for armed robbery in 2008. This is not at all to suggest we’ve matured as a nation, but simply that the sources of our activism and our national appetite for absurdity have transformed since Simpson disappeared behind bars nearly a decade ago.
Simpson, who faces possible parole on Thursday, seems primed for re-entry into society. If and when he is released, it will be to a world that has seemingly evolved in ways that make his tale less unique than we once believed it to be.
The racial overtones of Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, centered on the deaths of his wife and her associate Ron Goldman, were not to be mistaken — they were explicit strategy, employed first by Simpson’s legal team and infamously bungled thereafter by lawyers representing the state of California.
Attorneys for Simpson successfully instilled doubt in the minds of jurors concerning the efficacy of the LAPD, which for years found itself embroiled in controversy over its racist practices.
These controversies allowed for Simpson to become a seeming stand-in for black Americans and the plight enforced upon them by departments across the country. This, ironically, for a man whose entire collegiate and professional careers were spent placating white fear, ingratiating himself with affluent whites and downplaying the existence of racism.
When, for example, activist and athlete Harry Edwards attempted in 1968 to draft Simpson into an Olympic boycott urging fairer treatment for blacks throughout the nation, Simpson’s response betrayed little foresight for how he’d fare in his later years.
Edwards spoke to this in Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning documentary, “O.J.: Made in America.”
“O.J. was approached because he was the biggest name in collegiate athletics at that time. He was also a world record-holding track star, so here, we’ve got two-for-one. When I asked him, I said, ‘We’re trying to get black athletes to understand they have a role in the current civil rights movement,’ his response was, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J..’”
Our social environment has evolved in such a way that we currently want not for black martyrs — they are ubiquitous, many memorialized in hashtags for eternity. What this means for Simpson is that he no longer serves as a singular, galvanizing figure, particularly among social justice movements largely helmed by youths who lack reverence for Simpson’s persona and have had the privilege of assessing his trials and actions in retrospect.
While there is much to be gleaned from Simpson’s first criminal trial concerning the ways our nation grapples with race, Simpson the individual will factor minimally — if at all — in movements toward racial justice.
His story, while a fascinating psychological case, will hereby be reduced to one merely of squandered, disgraced celebrity.
There are, too, the matters of Simpson’s post-acquittal life and his ultimate armed robbery conviction that also seem relatively unremarkable given recent developments.
O.J. Simpson’s life, in the wake of his acquittal, took an ominous turn. Having lost a reported $33 million wrongful death lawsuit to Goldman’s family, Simpson resorted to a host of calloused and bizarre quick-money ventures to stay afloat. These included a hidden camera show and, perhaps most infamously, a book titled “If I Did It,” which ponders the way Simpson’s alleged double-murder could have played out.
(The Goldman family preemptively won rights to the book in a lawsuit and promptly changed the title to “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer” before publishing.)
Public distaste toward Simpson drove him into obscurity. His eventual 2008 robbery charge resulted from the former Heisman Trophy winner attempting to reclaim items of his that he insisted were stolen from him by a memorabilia dealer.
But interestingly enough, a newly freed O.J. Simpson will find that even grotesque capitalization on infamy is a practice far more inculcated into our society than it was when he departed.
Where Simpson was once seemingly anomalous in his brazen and calloused capitalism, we now afford others of his ilk ample opportunity to reap rewards for their actions.
In the near-decade since Simpson’s incarceration, we have been hyper-exposed to the levels of crassness that once thrust him to the periphery of our society. O.J. Simpson left a free world in which the perversion of power and celebrity was infrequently celebrated in public — he was, at the time, a most glaring example of this perversion.
He will, however, return to freedom without this distinction. And today, America cannot feign our disgust as we did then.
Not as we line the coffers of our most reviled killers.
Not as we ingratiate our most collusive law enforcement officers.
O.J. Simpson will rejoin a nation far less jarred by sensationalism than that of 2008 — far less genuinely shaken by absurdity, meaning a life of obscurity truly is his for the taking should he want it. And given the current normalcy of his once-audacious behavior, his value to us as a social figure will be very little.
He no longer need serve as a lightning rod, because the storm is all around us.