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OJ Simpson, the Intoxication of Fame, and the Monster Lurking Within

Reflecting on the murder and trial that captivated a nation…and the lessons from an unchecked desire for celebrity

There is no professional athlete that is more infamous than OJ Simpson. The mere mention of his name evokes strong emotions in people of a certain age. An older generation might still remember Simpson as one of the best running backs to ever play the position. Simpson is one of only eight players to ever rush for over 2,000 yards rushing in a single season. People in my generation who did not watch Simpson’s playing career, may remember him from a media perspective as a spokesperson, actor, and color analyst. But all generations will undoubtedly remember him for the trial for the double homicide of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman where he was acquitted but later found liable for wrongful death in a civil suit.

On April 10th, 2024, Simpson passed away after being diagnosed with cancer and his death has led many people to revisit and reopen their feelings about him and the trial that defined so much of pop culture in the 1990s. OJ Simpson, it could be argued, was the first instance of a viral story before the internet even existed to the masses. His story and the events of the most public trial in the 20th century still have ripple effects today that speak to the realities of notoriety, race relations in America, and the toxicity of celebrity.

The Football Player

Before the now infamous police chase involving Simpson’s white Ford Bronco on the 405 freeway, Simpson was the darling of white America. After arriving at USC after a year at the City College of San Francisco, Simpson starred at USC where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 and helped lead the Trojans to a national championship in 1967. He then parlayed his success in college to being the number one overall draft pick in 1969 to the Buffalo Bills.

In Buffalo, Simpson carved a name for himself as one of the greatest players to ever play his position. He would go on to lead the league in rushing yards four times and lead the league in touchdowns twice. He would also go on to win the league’s MVP award in 1973 and was selected to the All-Pro team five times. By any measure, Simpson was guaranteed a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was elected to the hall in 1985, presented by his coach Lou Saban. It should have been the cherry on top of a stellar career.

It is important to remember that as Simpson was gaining prominence at USC, the Civil Rights movement was well underway. Black Americans were demanding civil liberties that had been denied since the abolishment of slavery with the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. During the late 1960s, the movement often sought after prominent black athletes to use their platforms to speak up for the disenfranchisement of the Black American. This era saw athletes such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali speak about the Black struggle in America and demand change.

Simpson, as the next great African American football player, would have been a natural fit to continue advocating for these rights and using his platform as a notable player in Los Angeles (where USC’s campus is located). Simpson refused to do this, however. His reasoning was that he did not want his race to define who he was as a human being, stating the words, “I’m not Black; I’m OJ”.

OJ was driven by success and fame more than a deeper cause of his cultural identity. He wanted to be famous, to meet the country’s elite, and most importantly to be accepted by them. And initially, it worked incredibly well. Simpson was embraced by the rich, white upper class of the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles, and it seemed that he was finally considered “one of them”.

Fall From Grace

It is hard to describe just how big of a deal OJ Simpson was in the context of pop culture in America in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of his desire for fame and avoidance of issues that plagued Black America, Simpson was often considered palatable and approachable by mainstream white America. In 1975, People Magazine described Simpson as the “first Black athlete to become a bona fide lovable media superstar”. Simpson truly was living what many people considered to be the “American dream”. He was a successful football player, had a multitude of advertising deals with Chevrolet and Hertz, and was landing numerous acting roles in both movies and TV.

Simpson’s marriage to Nicole Brown also signified a moment of the acceptance of Black people integrating into white America. Whereas before an interracial couple often received the side eye, because Simpson was so embraced on a macro level it became a signal of progress in some regards. Above all else, OJ Simpson attempted to cultivate a persona and desperately wanted everyone to believe that it was true. On the surface, all the pieces were there. He was a successful man in America that was respected for his athletic achievements but was also carving a career as a media personality, he was married to a beautiful woman, and had a picturesque family.

Behind the scenes however, the story was much different. Simpson was married to Nicole Brown for seven years before their divorce in 1992. Throughout their relationship, Simpson abused Brown emotionally, verbally, and physically. He often was quoted making threats about murdering Brown if she ever was involved with another man. There were also instances of Brown fearing for her life while in Simpson’s presence and attempting to get the police involved.

The tragedy of Nicole Brown was beginning to unfold before she was murdered in 1994. Due to Simpson involving Brown’s father in an investment opportunity for a Hertz rental car facility, it is rumored that Brown’s family urged her to attempt to reconcile with Simpson. The patterns of abuse simply continued, showcasing a textbook sign of the patterns of an abuser. Simpson was continually violent towards Brown, and it caused law enforcement to see the monster in OJ Simpson in a way that his carefully manicured image could no longer conceal.

This pattern of abuse eventually led to the relationship being finished for good. Nicole Brown seemed to be moving on with her life and was recovering from years of abuse. This all ended abruptly, as is well documented, when Brown was stabbed to death outside of her home alongside friend Ron Goldman. OJ Simpson, was obviously the prime suspect with a litany of evidence showing that he committed the heinous crime of a double homicide. The trial that would follow is one that would change and reveal so much about us as a society.

The Trial of the Century

The OJ Simpson murder trial was an event that captured the imagination of every American. The trial showcased Johnnie Cochran, who developed a reputation for representing stars in legal matters. Besides Simpson, Cochran also represented Michael Jackson, Sean Combs, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dogg. OJ’s defense team also included Robert Kardashian, the father of the now famous Kardashian daughters. It can be argued that their fame today does not exist without OJ Simpson and his murder trial.

This trial included a racial element that is impossible to ignore. There are countless videos (such as this one from the Oprah Winfrey show) that show Black people cheering for the not guilty verdict while white people were shaking their heads in disbelief. The irony of this was that OJ never wanted to be defined by his Blackness, but at his lowest point it was Black people, and not white people, that he craved acceptance from. What they supported however, was not OJ himself but rather the idea of a Black man getting one over on the justice system.

In the 1990s well before the murder trial, racial tensions were bubbling in America. During the crack epidemic of the 1980s, there were many Black men and women that were being incarcerated, and this led to strained relationships with law enforcement. This all came to a head with the murder of Rodney King and the subsequent LA riots in 1992. There was a growing divide between America and Black people. For many Black people during that time, the vindication of OJ Simpson at trial was retribution for the lack of punishment that was doled out to the police officers that murdered Rodney King.

The trial of OJ Simpson became a spectacle, a national talking point for weeks. Everyone was watching this seminal moment of American history unfold. This fixation accelerated our fascination with the legal system and its intricacies. It also showed both the perils of seeking fame but also the reward for being rich enough to afford the best lawyers to circumvent punishment. In the wake of the civil trial that was conducted following the not guilty verdict, it became abundantly evident that Simpson was in fact guilty and got away with murder. His actions following the trial, however, show us the true depth of the addiction that he had to the spotlight.

The Intoxication of Fame

Running backs that entered the NFL in the mid to late 1960s have often been forgotten in history. The great names from that time featured players like Mercury Morris, Larry Csonka, and John Riggins. All great players but ultimately not the first name that fans think of when it comes to great running backs in the history of the NFL. The league in those days did not yet have the popularity that it does today. This was the era that OJ Simpson entered the NFL, and he had ambitions to be famous, to be remembered.

His forays into film and advertising helped to keep him relevant and maintained his status as a notable famous person for many years. His murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and the trial that followed, ensured that he would never be forgotten. In a way, it was a twisted version of the spotlight that Simpson always sought. But instead of being remembered as a great athlete or a mediocre actor, he will be remembered as a murderer that got away with the worst crime one can commit.

Like many rich men, he found a loophole in the system to avoid paying the $33.5 million that was awarded to the Goldman family after the civil judgment case in 1997. He would also go back to his history of domestic abuse with his next partner Christine Prody, a 19 year old cocktail waitress he met when he was 45 years old. In 2007, Simpson was incarcerated for his role in stealing sports memorabilia from a Las Vegas casino at gunpoint. Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2008, but he was released on parole in 2017.

The life of OJ Simpson was one filled with adoration and hatred. It is a lesson in the perils of an addiction to fame, and a realization of the fragile nature of race relations in our country. It is also a stark reminder of the epidemic of domestic violence that is present in professional athletes. Simpson often wanted people to view him as just himself without any sort of racial elements attached to it. In the wake of his death, it is clear that no one Black or White, wants to be associated with OJ Simpson. He is a reminder as to why our communities and relationships are so important and that no amount of fame or masquerades of success are enough to hide when a monster lurks within.

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