Is there anyone out there who has not heard the facts, the factoids, the allegations, the half-truths, the untruths, the leaks, the smears, heard the E-mail jokes (hundreds of them, thousands, tasteless, it is always agreed, in all mitigating sanctimony, even as they are passed on: “Did you hear that O.J.’s signed a new contract with Hertz… he’s going to be making license plates for them…. The bad news is O.J.’s going to prison, the good news is that Michael Jackson’s taking the kids…. Did you hear O.J.’s last words to Nicole…your waiter will be with you shortly…. Rodney King told O.J., ‘Good thing you didn’t get out of the car, Juice…”’), heard the theories zipping along the communications highway, crisscrossing the Internet, hundreds of them, too, thousands, vide Lauren Swann to François Coulombe, Sunday, July 10, 1994, 10:04:13 AM (“Why was nothing else but a glove found at the back of the guest house? How convenient”), vide Joan Porte to Lauren Swann, Sunday, July 10, 1994, 2:23:19 PM (“Personally I think someone saw how easy it was to make Michael Jackson fall, and had it in for O.J.”), the bloody butchery murders of Nicole and Ron (who in death achieved what O.J. earned in life, the true fame of not needing a last name for identification) a nirvana for conspiracy theorists, halcyon days, not since JFK and the grassy knoll, the three tramps, the single bullet, Zapruder frames 200 to 224.
Ninety-five million Americans in two thirds of the nation’s households tuned in on the longest, slowest chase in television history, a chase that no film director would dare stage. In the skies above, a squadron of telecopters recorded the event, while below A.C. Cowling’s white Bronco, escorted front and rear by what appeared to be most of the police agencies in southern California, made its leisurely way north from the El Toro Y, up the Santa Ana, the Artesia, and the San Diego freeways, its stately choreography reminiscent of water ballets from M-G-M’s old Esther Williams musicals.
“Wet she was a star,” Esther Williams’s producer once confided to me about his former meal ticket, and the same calculation could be applied to the passenger crouched in the back of Cowling’s Bronco, cellular telephone and .357 Magnum at the ready, the possibility that he would blow his brains out a topic of endless speculation by anchormen and anchorwomen reporting on his hegira: in an open field, wearing helmet and pads, O.J. Simpson was a star. But that was long ago, and he would end that night in handcuffs, mugged and fingerprinted, a soon-to-be forty-seven-year old man with a new identification in the Los Angeles County jail, Prisoner No. 4013970, charged in the arrest warrant with violating Section 187 (a) of the California Penal Code, to wit in count one that “Orenthal James Simpson… did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought murder Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being,” and in count two that he “did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought murder Ronald Lyle Goldman, a human being.”
The professional athlete is isolated early, anointed for the possibility of fame and fortune when still a child. In a recent interview in the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls and a practicing Buddhist, said that “…in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, eighty percent of these kids are noticed and given privileged lives. From then on, everything is paid for. By the time we get them, at age twenty, they’ve had maybe eight years of a programmed existence where everything has been spoonfed to them. They’ve got shoe people coming after them, sportswear people, agents, lawyers—they might have an entourage of five to ten people vying for their favor.”1 For the child athlete of color from a poor family, sports offer the best, and in many cases the only, opportunity to get out of harm’s way.
The case history of Orenthal James Simpson was in no way original: a gang background, trouble with the law, truancy and grades so bad he was unable to get into college. Military service seemed worth trying. “I was gonna join the Marines and fight in Vietnam,” he told an interviewer, “but…a friend came back from Vietnam missing a leg, and I thought I had to be crazy to go there.”2 He maneuvered his way into junior college and a draft deferment, and then entered the University of Southern California, won the Heisman Trophy as the country’s best football player, and in 1969 was the first player chosen in the NFL draft.
The life of the professional athlete is an unreal, emotionally underdeveloped existence, lived at the frontier of instinct and reflex, where the difference between success and failure can be measured in microseconds; split vision, muscle memory, and hand-to-eye coordination are better refined than the vocabulary to explain them. That the athlete will never again do anything in his life as well as what he does at age twenty-five is a truth best left unstated. As long as he can perform, the athlete has an exemption from the realities of life; his physical skills will endure, and his every whim is a demand likely to be satisfied.
Sexual entitlement is a part of the package, as if the women who are drawn to him and his fame and his riches are just another bonus clause in his contract, a perk, like the suite on the road and the free rental car at his disposal. By the time he is thirty, he is professionally in decline, especially if like O.J. Simpson he is a running back with chancy knees. After sports, if he still manages to maintain his high profile, he is really famous for formerly being famous. It is a constantly diminishing psychic bank account on which to draw. He is too old to begin the kind of work that promises much reward, even if he were educated, qualified, and so disposed; chemical dependency is an expensive outlet, but rehab promises a possible profit center if a writer can be found to put its lessons in book form with the proper moral platitudes. Sports broadcasting and television huckstering allow some of the better known to trade on their names for a few more years, until a newer, fresher retiree appears. For other semi-solvent former stars, retirement becomes an endless treadmill of card shows, “fantasy camps” where aging fans pay to play ball against their childhood idols, celebrity golf tournaments, old-timers’ games, and meet-and-greet paid appearances at the weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and bar mitzvahs of strangers, every handshake rung up on a cash register, the sexual favor provided for the randy guest in the nature of a tip.
O.J. Simpson was one of the few retired athletes, and certainly the first black, to succeed in exploiting his retirement, becoming in the process more widely known than he ever was as a football player, known to a generation that had never seen him on a gridiron, a favorite of women as well as men who fantasized their own eighty-yard runs. He was the quintessential intimate stranger, the person we think we know because of his celebrity. He had the perfect marketable nickname—O.J., the Juice—he had been, in the terms of his profession, not merely good but great, and he had that smile like sunlight, the smile that must have masked, we can speculate now, how many scars from a childhood in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill projects, how many volcanic eruptions of temper, how many racial affronts. Simpson was able to transcend color not through sports but through the marketplace, product endorsements, in particular the Hertz commercials. Corporate spokesmen normally have a short shelf life, but Simpson remained the public persona of Hertz for an almost incredible seventeen years, from 1977, when he was still a Buffalo Bills running back, to the night that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were murdered.
The point of the Hertz campaign was a promise to speed the business traveler out of the airport, into his car, and on the way to his appointment. It was a nervy decision for Hertz to select Simpson as the surrogate for those white mid-level middle-class corporate managers whose lives revolved around airline hubs and the OAG Pocket Flight Guide. To see O.J. Simpson racing through an airport was at first both startling and witty, then routine and reassuring. He was always in a subdued suit and unthreatening tie, the uniform of middle management, unlike Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the other black endorsement megastars, who in their commercials were never far removed from a basketball or a jersey. “People identify with me, and I don’t think that I’m offensive to anyone,” Simpson says in the quickie paperback O.J. Simpson—American Hero, American Tragedy. “People have told me I’m colorless. Everyone likes me. I stay out of politics, I don’t like to save people for the Lord.”
With O.J. Simpson, white Americans could congratulate themselves with the spurious notion that they were colorblind, a conclusion made possible by Simpson’s conversion of himself into a white man’s idea of an acceptable black man. He bought a large house on a corner lot in Brentwood Park, where his neighbors included Michael Ovitz, the president of Creative Artists Agency, who is ritually described as “the most powerful man in Hollywood”; Gil Garcetti, the Los Angeles County district attorney, whose office will be prosecuting Simpson on two counts of murder in the first degree, the double murder counting as a special circumstance, which means Garcetti will have to decide if he will seek the death penalty for his neighbor; Richard Riordan, the mayor of Los Angeles; and, directly across the street, Stanley Sheinbaum, the political activist, former ACLU board member, and former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
Simpson’s black first wife, Marguerite Whitley, the mother of his three children (the youngest of whom, Aaren, died after a swimming pool accident shortly before her second birthday), was dismissed, although it took a court order to get her out of the Brentwood house. Simpson lived the restless life of the retired upscale ex-jock: golf and high-stakes card games at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, expensive fast cars, quick trips in search of the sun, corporate conventions, some discreet drug use. Surrounding him was the sort of entourage that regularly attaches itself to superannuated former athletes, rich white sports fanatics basking in the reflected warmth of his fame as he basked in the comfort of their wealth, and the kind of celebrity lawyers who like to hang with the celebrities they represent, sharing in the overflow of drugs and girls. The entourage became to Simpson in retirement what the Electric Company, his offensive line in Buffalo, had been in his playing days, protectors of the franchise, middle-aged schmoozers and hangers-on shielding the Juice from any bad news, letting him go on thinking, as he had his entire life, that should trouble ever arrive it could be handled.
Tricycle, Summer 1993, p. 94.↩
Marc Cerasini, O.J. Simpson: American Hero, American Tragedy (Pinnacle Books, 1994), p. 56.↩