Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Rise and Fall of O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson, football legend and alleged double murderer, may spend the rest of his life in jail as a result of trying to forcibly reacquire memorabilia and property that he claims belong to him; Las Vegas Judge Jackie Glass handed down a complex sentence to Simpson as a result of his conviction on multiple kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon charges: the 61 year old Simpson could be required to serve up to 33 years in prison and apparently will have to serve at least nine years, unless his conviction is overturned on appeal. Simpson's life has devolved from a football hero's triumphant saga to a bizarre tragedy rife with bitter irony.

I am too young to remember Simpson's great NFL career, though of course as a student of sports history I became quite familiar with his dazzling highlights and remarkable accomplishments. My first memory of Simpson is an image of his battle scarred knees that was shown during an NFL Today feature about him roughly 30 years ago when he was on the last legs of his career--literally--as a San Francisco 49er. In his first year as San Francisco's coach, Bill Walsh hoped to squeeze a few more yards out of the "Juice" but Simpson managed just 460 yards with a 3.8 yards per attempt average in 1979, his NFL swan song.

In his prime with the Buffalo Bills, Simpson won four NFL rushing titles in a five year span (1972-73, 1975-76). Simpson's offensive line was called the "Electric Company" because they let loose the "Juice." As a teenager, Simpson boldly walked up to Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and declared that he was going to break all of Brown's records. Brown's career rushing record of 12,312 yards survived Simpson's onslaught (only to be later broken by Walter Payton) as Simpson retired with 11,236 yards (second on the career list at the time) but Simpson did break Brown's single season rushing record (1863 yards in 1963) by becoming the first NFL player to break the 2000 yard barrier (2003 yards in 1973). Simpson also shattered the single game rushing mark (once held by Brown, then surpassed by two other players prior to Simpson) by gaining 250 yards in a 1973 game and then again by gaining 275 yards in a 1976 game (Payton broke that record a year later with 277 yards and Adrian Peterson is the current record holder with a 296 yard outburst).

Simpson parlayed his football success into a pathbreaking career as a pitchman, including his famous Hertz ad when he ran through an airport and a series of spots with Arnold Palmer. If you grew up watching "Be Like Mike" ads then it may be difficult to believe that there was a time not too long ago when endorsement opportunities were few and far between for even the best black athletes. In the 1970s, Simpson and then Julius Erving became the first so-called "crossover" athletes, black athletes who were considered to have an appeal that "transcended" race (I am simply using the terms that were used at that time, as antiquated as those concepts seem in an era when Tiger Woods and LeBron James openly speak of becoming billionaires largely on the strength of their endorsement opportunities).

Simpson later became a member of the Monday Night Football booth, wearing one of those trademark yellow ABC jackets and after that he worked as a sideline reporter at NFL games, donning some gloves and shoes that would become infamous in a different and much more grisly context.

The popular Simpson seemed to have it all going for him but it is interesting to recall one person who never had a high opinion of him: Jim Brown always spoke derisively of Simpson, basically calling him a fake and a sellout who did nothing to help the black community. Simpson was a gang banger as a youth and Brown always intimated that despite the smiling facade that Simpson showed to corporate America on the inside Simpson never really abandoned those thuggish roots. It was easy to dismiss Brown's comments as sour grapes directed toward someone who broke some of his records and achieved greater financial success but in hindsight it seems that Brown was quite correct in his character assessment of Simpson.

The famous double murder in 1994 that claimed the lives of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman was apparently the culmination of a long history of domestic violence directed at Brown by Simpson; yes, Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges in a highly contentious, racially charged trial, but if a higher level of motive, opportunity and physical evidence were necessary for a murder conviction than what existed in that case then no one would ever be convicted of murder except in cases where the crime was captured on videotape. Subsequent to the criminal trial, Simpson was found liable for $33.5 million in damages in a civil case related to those killings (the burden of proof is lower in a civil action).

Simpson pledged to hunt for the "real killers" but he spent most of his time playing golf and hiding his assets from the Brown and Goldman families, who legally could not touch his luxurious Florida house or his sizable NFL pension. The Yiddish word "chutzpah" is sometimes defined as killing both of your parents and then asking the court for mercy because you are an orphan; Simpson's picture should be next to that word in the dictionary after he decided to write a ghoulish book titled "If I Did It," in which he denied committing the murders and yet laid out how he would have done them if he had been the killer. Is it possible to imagine a more ghastly way to try to make a buck than to trade on a double murder involving the mother of your children in which you were the primary--and still only--suspect?

Simpson's name popped up in the news a few other times over the years, including his attempt to illegally provide free satellite television for himself; that cost him a $25,000 judgment payable to DirecTV in 2005, plus more than $33,000 to cover DirecTV's legal fees.

His current legal problems stem from a bizarre incident in a Las Vegas hotel last September. Simpson apparently found out that some former associates of his had obtained memorabilia and property that Simpson considered to be his. So, Simpson gathered together a few people and barged into the associates' hotel room, drawing a gun and bellowing "Don't let nobody out of this room!" It's one thing to pay your way out of a satellite TV dispute and there were no surviving witnesses to the double murder but unfortunately for Simpson there were several witnesses to his hotel room shenanigans, plus a tape recording of the whole episode.

Before Judge Glass decreed Simpson's sentence, Simpson made a statement to the court. Not surprisingly, he failed to take any responsibility for his actions. When he said that he's sorry, what he meant is that he's sorry he got caught. Simpson bizarrely claimed that he did not know that he was committing a criminal act when he barged into someone else's hotel room with a loaded gun and he said that all he was doing was asking some old friends to return his property. Simpson talked about how long he has known these guys and their wives and their children. I don't know about you, but if I am going to ask an old friend to return something he borrowed I am not going to roll up on him with a loaded gun. Why exactly would you need a gun to communicate with trusted friends?

O.J. Simpson's athletic gifts provided him a golden opportunity to better his life, the lives of his family members and, if he had chosen, to make a positive contribution to society by using his name and influence to support a greater cause, like Jim Brown has done with his Amer-I-Can foundation. Instead, Simpson left a trail of misery and destruction culminating in the possibility of spending his final days on Earth locked behind bars. What a pitiful, tragic waste of human potential.


In addition to seeing Simpson featured in that NFL Today piece, watching his highlights and reading about him in various books and magazines, I later encountered Simpson in, of all places, the epigraph for David Halberstam's great basketball book, "The Breaks of the Game"; it is particularly poignant to read this passage not only considering what Simpson has done with his life but also because author Paul Zimmerman recently suffered a couple strokes; hopefully, Zimmerman will make a fast and complete recovery.

Here is the epigraph from "The Breaks of the Game":

"Fame," O.J. said, walking along, "is a vapor, popularity is an accident and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character. "

"Where'd you get that from?" Cowlings asked.

"Heard it one night on TV in Buffalo," O.J. said. "I was watching a late hockey game on Canadian TV and all of a sudden a guy just said it. Brought me right up out of my chair. I never forgot it."

--From an article by Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated, November 26, 1979, on O.J. Simpson


Anonymous said...


he was a great player he from the bay went to gailleo and city college in san francisco did you see him play my dad said behind jim brown and barry sanders he was best rb he ever seen, sad he killed two people possibly he was agreat player he was determined to fail like mike tyson was. he was dumb going to that hotel trying to get his belongings

David Friedman said...


I never saw him play in person. I saw him play on TV near the end of his career but I've seen a lot of his great highlights dating back to his USC days. He was a great, great player but of course that will always be overshadowed now by all of his legal problems. You certainly could make the argument that he is one of the top five running backs of all-time.