OJ Simpson

Opinion O.J. Simpson was always on the run

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Washington Post
April 12, 2024 at 05:50
O.J. Simpson in a Los Angeles courtroom on June 15, 1995. (Sam Mircovich/AP)
O.J. Simpson in a Los Angeles courtroom on June 15, 1995. (Sam Mircovich/AP)

When we picture scenes from the life of O.J. Simpson, we see him running away — from pursuers, from justice, from his own demons. A compelling and tragic lifetime of flight came to an end Wednesday with Simpson’s death from cancer at 76. “The Juice” is loose no more.

On football fields, Simpson ran away from tacklers with breathtaking speed and agility. He first achieved fame as one of the greatest running backs in history. At the University of Southern California, in 1968, he won the Heisman Trophy. Drafted by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, in 1973 he became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that fully captures the thrill of watching Simpson run. A linebacker would be bearing down on him, inches away, and suddenly he would zigzag left or right, or both in succession, and he was gone. His running was charismatic. When you added the sparkle of his million-dollar smile and the polish of his perfect diction, he was irresistible. Everyone loved O.J.

In his most famous TV commercial, for Hertz car rental, he ran through airports just like he had run through defensive lines. Simpson made an instant transition from football star to Hollywood star. He was in “The Towering Inferno.” He was in the landmark “Roots” TV series. He played Detective Nordberg in three “Naked Gun” movies. He hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

But then, in 1994, he got into a white Ford Bronco and ran from the brutal, bloody killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. The ensuing low-speed chase on Los Angeles freeways was captured live by TV cameras and broadcast around the world. That night, I was watching the NBA Finals. When coverage of the game was interrupted for the breaking news of the Bronco chase, at first I was annoyed. Then I was riveted.

All of that was mere prelude, of course, to Simpson’s greatest escape of all.

As theater and as a legal circus, Simpson’s murder trial has never been surpassed or even equaled. Its characters were vivid to the point of being indelible. Eager-to-please Judge Lance Ito, dutiful but overmatched prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, slick and razor-sharp defense lawyers Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and F. Lee Bailey. Houseguest Brian “Kato” Kaelin. Simpson friend and counselor Robert Kardashian, progenitor of all things Kardashian. Racist detective Mark Fuhrman. In a nonspeaking role, the bloody glove.

Throughout his career as a football player, actor and celebrity, Simpson had scrupulously avoided saying anything about issues involving race. He reportedly used to tell friends, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” Indeed, he was so beloved because he was seen as nonconfrontational and nonthreatening.

Faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison, however, he embraced his Blackness. His professed new racial consciousness allowed some Black Americans — certainly not all — to at least consider the possibility that he was yet another Black man being brutalized by a racist justice system. After all, the trial was taking place just three years after the Los Angeles riots, sparked when the police officers who savagely beat Rodney King were judged to have done nothing wrong.

The evidence against Simpson was overwhelming, even though the murder weapon, a knife, was never found. The trial took 11 months. The jury took less than four hours to reach its shocking verdict: not guilty.

I have not a scintilla of doubt that he committed the murdersIn 2007, Simpson even had the gall to write a book, “If I Did It,” which he said was a hypothetical narrative of how he would have committed the crime, wink, but, of course, he didn’t. He often blathered on about how police should be looking for “the real killer,” who was supposedly still out there somewhere.

In 2008, Simpson was convicted in Las Vegas of armed robbery and other charges — connected with what he claimed was an attempt to recover some stolen sports memorabilia — and given a harsh 33-year prison sentence, which struck me as akin to a referee’s makeup call correcting a previous error. But he was released on parole in 2017, and he spent the rest of his healthy years playing golf.

It was a diminished life, to be sure. He had just a fraction of his onetime wealth and status. His celebrity was of the most tarnished kind. His need for adulation would never again be requited. He was a pariah.

But O.J. Simpson died a free man. He zigged and zagged all his life — and never quite got caught.

Opinion by Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson writes a column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.

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