O.J. Simpson Changed Everything - 6 minutes read

For those of us born after the baby boom, June 17, 1994, was nothing less than our JFK moment. 

Where were you during the O.J. Simpson chase? The night that law enforcement trailed Simpson—the wildly popular NFL Hall of Famer, sports commentator, and sometimes actor who goofed around in those Naked Gun movies, who was now incomprehensibly a fugitive from justice, wanted for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman—in a white Bronco, up a Southern California freeway, on live television?

Here’s one of a million tales: I was gathered in a parish center of my neighborhood Catholic Church in the Bronx, N.Y., with a group of fellow teenage friends, to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals between our beloved local team, the New York Knicks, and the Houston Rockets. But rather than share the communal joy that only sports can deliver—the Knicks won, but the game was an overwhelming afterthought—we all lived through, together, a sort of prurient nightmare. Would O.J. Simpson kill himself live, in front of 95 million people tuning in? 

And why couldn’t we all turn away?   

Earlier in the day, Simpson’s friend Robert Kardashian—yes, of that Kardashian clan—had read what sounded like a Simpson suicide note on live TV. In the note, Simpson denied involvement with Nicole’s death and apologized to Goldman’s family. “Don't feel sorry for me,” Kardashian read. “I've had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person. Thanks for making my life special.” During the chase that evening, Simpson held a gun to his head.

A white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings carrying O.J. Simpson, is trailed by Los Angeles police cars as it travels on a freeway in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994.Joseph Villarin—AP

Simpson, who died on April 10, according to his family, at 76, after a battle with cancer, made it back to his Brentwood estate that evening. But the memory of June 17, and the events that would unfold over the next few years, presaged the next three decades of American life while altering the national psyche forever.

For one, the Simpson case ushered in the era of reality TV. Earlier in the decade, MTV’s The Real Word, which chronicled the communal lives of young people in the big city, introduced the form. But the O.J. chase put it in overdrive. Everyone was watching the chase. Human suffering drew eyeballs, on a massive scale. Duly noted.

O.J. accelerated our obsession with celebrity culture. The overwhelming interest in Simpson’s criminal trial, whose main characters became household names—Lance Ito, Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, Kato Kaelin, Mark Fuhrman—offered a market opportunity for 24-7 news outlets to jump into the fray. MSNBC and Fox News both launched in 1996. Would they have thrived without Simpson and "the trial of the century"? Perhaps. But O.J. increased the urgency.

And the noise. With the cacophony about O.J. on high volume in the mid-1990s, both on television and through an emerging technology called the World Wide Web, divisions emerged. His not-guilty verdict—announced on October 3, 1995, another seminal date in 1990s history—was cheered by many Black Americans, and derided by white ones. Strong DNA evidence—another innovation introduced to a large swath of the country thanks to O.J.—placed Simpson at the gruesome crime scene. But Simpson’s defense, fronted by the charismatic Cochran, argued that O.J. could have been framed by the Los Angeles Police Department, which had a history of sordid treatment of African-Americans: a group of white police officers, for example, were caught beating a Black man, Rodney King, on a widely disseminated videotape in 1991. The strategy injected enough doubt in the minds of the majority African-American jury to tilt the result Simpson’s way. 

LAPD cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, leading to the deadly Los Angeles riots that spring. Many African Americans may not have been totally convinced of Simpson’s innocence. But they supported the verdict regardless. According to one survey, some 80% of Black Americans agreed with the result of the trial, while more than half of whites disagreed with it. An unfortunate 1994 TIME cover, in which O.J.’s mug shot was visibly darkened, contributed to the perception that the cops, the media, and America at large was out to get a prominent Black American accused of murdering two white people. If the jury was delivering a makeup call for sins of the past, so be it. Enough was enough.

We hear, ad nauseam, that we live in polarizing times. America is supposedly more divided than ever. During the travails of the Trump presidency, and the protests, reckoning, and subsequent backlash to the idea of systemic racism that emerged after the 2020 death of George Floyd, O.J. Simpson wasn’t consciously top of mind. But 30 years ago, a whole generation of Americans learned how to dig in, hunker down, and take sides with their tribes. Are the effects of that traumatic exercise still felt today? Undeniably, yes.

Even before his explosive murder case of 1994, Simpson was a pivotal figure. Simpson, an all-time great running back who, in 1973 while playing for the Buffalo Bills, became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, deliberately avoided embroiling himself in political and social discourse of his days. Instead, he became a sports-marketing pioneer, hawking Hertz rental cards and chicken and, naturally, orange juice to a public that embraced him. To white America, Simpson was a post-civil rights Black athlete worthy of acceptance. He smiled, he was safe, he was truly All-American. He was a blueprint for Michael Jordan and the “Republicans buy sneakers too” movement that he embraced, and that many others adopted through the 1980s, ‘90s, and into the early 21st century. “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.,” Simpson would reportedly tell friends. 

Which made it all the more galling, for many, when he leaned into racial identity when he needed it most. At a walk-through for the jury at his home, his criminal-defense lawyers swapped out photos of Simpson with white friends for Black-themed art and pictures of Simpson with Black figures. 

By the time athletes rebelled against the Simpson ethos and embraced activism, O.J. was long a pariah. In 1997, a civil trial jury found him liable for the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman and ordered him to pay $33.5 million to their family members. In 2008, he was found guilty of robbing memorabilia at gunpoint in Las Vegas and sentenced to 33 years in prison, with possibility for parole. He spent nine years incarcerated before his 2017 release. He was granted early release from parole in 2021. During the last years of life he built a semblance of a public profile on X, weighing in, via cell phone video, on mostly matters of football.

O.J. Simpson was almost certainly a murderer. That’s undeniable, and unforgettable. He was a monster, a tragic figure, a con man. He was also a monumental figure in American life. O.J. changed everything. And now he’s gone.

Correction, April 11

The original version of this article story misstated the date of Simpson's death. He died on April 10, not April 11.

Source: Time

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