ESPN, America’s leader in sports entertainment, called it “the defining cultural tale of modern America.” In 1995, former football star Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson stood trial for, and was acquitted of, the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. It has been more than two decades since Simpson’s trial, and America’s captivation with it has hardly evaporated. One would be hard-pressed to go a week without catching at least a reference to “The Juice,” whether it’s with respect to his playing career, the murder trial, or his life since his 1995 acquittal. But why? Why is America so obsessed with O.J. Simpson? Is it because of his perhaps unequaled skill on the gridiron? Is it because of the grisly crimes he was accused of two decades ago? Is it because of the connections to many of our own present-day issues of race, violence, justice and celebrity? The answer is simply “yes, all of the above.”
Just last week, ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series began airing its five-part documentary on Simpson. “O.J.: Made in America” follows Simpson from humble beginnings, on to his Heisman Trophy-winning college career at USC, into a Hall of Fame career in the National Football League, through the infamous murder trial, and beyond. However, this is just the latest in a long line of media productions centered around Simpson. Earlier this year, the television channel “FX” began a miniseries entitled The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, featuring an ensemble cast of Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as lawyer Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and David Schwimmer as Simpson’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian. Each production, along with the others that are far too numerous to name individually, tell the tale of race, violence, and the American media.
One observer of Simpson’s career stated that “…for us, O.J. was colorless.” In the period of Simpson’s rise to football stardom, racial politics were quite contentious, even in the arena of sports. Muhammad Ali had become a symbol through his refusal to conscripted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War. Lew Alcindor, later known as basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also made a political and racial statement by boycotting the 1968 Olympic basketball tournament, citing his disapproval of Vietnam and the state of race relations in the United States. Meanwhile, O.J. Simpson appeared nation-wide commercials for Chevy, Hertz car rentals, and much more. In a time when many African-American athletes were polarizing to the American public, Simpson appeared to the white community as a uniting factor, someone to bridge the gap between white America and black America both on and off the field.
If O.J. Simpson is remembered far less than Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with respect to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, why did race come to dominant a later chapter of Simpson’s life? One needs to look no further than the race relations surrounding the LAPD in the years leading up to Simpson’s trial. In 1990, the police department was 61 percent white, only 14 percent black, and had a history of rampant corruption and racism. After the acquittals of members of the LAPD in the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent 1992 Los Angeles riots, race relations were unstable and contentious. With Simpson’s trial following so quickly, it was impossible for the media and the public to ignore the racial undertones. This was compounded even further with Detective Mark Fuhrman’s racist statements, perjury, and possible evidence tampering. Throughout the course of the trial, Simpson went from the “colorless” former football star to the centerpiece of the racially charged “trial of the century.”
O.J. Simpson was acquitted on October 3, 1995, eliciting very different responses from the white and black communities. Over twenty years later, we as a nation are still captivated, because the same arguments and discussions are taking place today. Whether one believes Simpson is guilty or innocent does not change the fact. The racially charged discussion of our athletes continues. Furthermore, it seems like every other day there is another story about a professional athlete involved in a domestic violence accusation (of which Simpson had multiple over the course of his marriage to Nicole Brown Simpson). Finally, the debates over police brutality, corruption, and racism in some of our nation’s police forces has dominated the news since the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or Freddie Gray in Baltimore Maryland, both resulting from altercations with white police officers. Simpson is currently in prison, serving a 33-year sentence related to a 2008 armed robbery. He is up for parole next year and will undoubtedly dominate the headlines once again. In a way, O.J. Simpson embodies all of these issues that still pervade American society. That is why America is still obsessed with O.J. Simpson. His life is representative of the questions we as a nation wrestle with to this very day.