The Real Reason OJ Simpson Still Captivates Our Conversations

Jamie Roberts By Jamie Roberts Jun13,2024 #vox

O.J. Simpson at a Buffalo Bills football game against the Denver Broncos at Rich Stadium on October 5, 1975, in Orchard Park, New York.  | George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Long after the Trial of the Century ended, we couldn’t help obsessing over a fallen hero. The news of O.J. Simpson’s death — of cancer at the age of 76 — falls uneasily. O.J. Simpson is an uneasy figure. Thinking of him, you think of the power and glamour of his rise to stardom; you think of the horror of the crimes of which he was later accused and, controversially, acquitted. The story has made him an American archetype. Around Simpson, our fraught and confused feelings about race, gender, celebrity, and spectacle swirl into a vexed storm. He is the point in time and space where all our sins meet.
For a time, Simpson was one of the most beloved men in America, a charismatic sports hero whose abilities on the playing field in the 1960s and ’70s seemed supernatural. The whole country appeared to be in awe of what he could accomplish: the Heisman in 1968, NFL MVP in 1973. He was so famous that his celebrity seemed to transcend America’s racism, to the point that when he was said to have declared, “I’m not Black — I’m O.J.!” it felt like he was recognizing something true about the way people saw him. (For the record, Simpson said the line was taken out of context.)
After Simpson retired from the NFL in 1979, he parlayed his celebrity into a new career in acting and broadcasting that seemed set to carry him smoothly into old age as a living legend. The good kind of legend, not the bad kind. He was the likable guy selling Hertz rental cars, the goofy cop in the Naked Gun movies. He was the kind of famous that means you more or less live in people’s living rooms and on their TV screens. People feel like they know you when you’re that kind of famous, and they love you, too.
Yet even at the height of his fame, there were shadows in Simpson’s personal life. He was brutal to his wife, the model Nicole Brown, who called the police on at least nine different occasions to report Simpson for domestic violence. When the police reported to the Simpson house after one call in 1989, they found Brown hiding in the bushes outside their home, half-dressed and severely bruised. “He’s going to kill me! He’s going to kill me!” she yelled to the police as they arrived.
After that 1989 incident, Simpson was finally arrested. He pleaded no contest to a charge of spousal abuse and received a sentence of 120 hours of community service and two years’ probation. After the sentencing, the Simpsons released a joint statement saying, “Our marriage is as strong as the day we were married, if not stronger.”
Later, the Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti would describe Simpson’s sentencing as “a joke, a terrible joke,” implying that Simpson received special treatment from the judge because of his celebrity. Simpson’s celebrity protected his reputation as well. His popularity did not falter, no matter how he treated Brown. In the years following his 1989 arrest, he appeared in two Naked Gun sequels, and both were box office successes.
In 1992, Brown filed for divorce from Simpson, citing irreconcilable differences. On June 12, 1994, Brown was found murdered in her home, along with her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson maintained his innocence, but he also fled the police in an infamous low-speed highway chase in his white Bronco that was broadcast live across America. In 1995, the case went to trial, where it became immortalized as “the trial of the century.”
The trial of O.J. Simpson has become an American myth
The trial of the century was a lightning rod for sociopolitical commentary. Feminists argued that it was a matter of public record that Simpson had stalked and beaten his ex-wife, and that if law enforcement had taken the problem seriously and made the proper interventions, Brown would still be alive. Simpson’s lawyers argued that he was being unjustly targeted because the police could not stand to see a Black man be successful, and they wanted to tear him down. The argument was potent enough that support for Simpson fell strongly along racial lines. A Los Angeles Times poll found that Black people were more than four times more likely than white people to think Simpson was not guilty.
In October of 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders. The families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown promptly filed a civil lawsuit against Simpson for wrongful death and battery, and in 1997, Simpson was found legally liable for their deaths. In a symbolic moment, Simpson auctioned off some of the memorabilia from his football glory years — including his college Heisman Trophy — to pay the damages he owed.
Simpson’s celebrity was, perhaps, able to protect him from a guilty sentence in criminal court. Yet the act of cashing in his social capital in such a way seems to have transformed fame into infamy. There was a kind of hole in the fabric of American culture where a hero used to be, and it was hard to know what stood in its place now. After the long run of trials, Simpson was no longer the kind of figure that rental car companies wanted promoting their product. He had lived off his reputation for a long time, and now that reputation had changed.
Simpson attempted to cash in his new image all the same. In 2006, he announced he was publishing a “hypothetical” account of the murders and their aftermath, to be titled If I Did It. The book was canceled after overwhelming public outcry, and a judge transferred the rights to the family of Ron Goldman. The Goldmans eventually published the book with additional commentary and the new subtitle Confessions of the Killer.
In 2007, Simpson was arrested and eventually sentenced to at least nine years of prison time for an armed robbery in a Las Vegas casino. In 2017 he was released on parole, and he lived the last seven years of his life a free man.
By then, however, the story of the trial of the century had reached a new generation. In 2016, it was adapted into The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Just a few months later came the documentary O.J.: Made in America. Both were massive critical hits celebrated for their ability to bring out the political undercurrents that made the Simpson case so fascinating to Americans to begin with: the way it seemed to pit racism against misogyny against money against star power and see which carried the most weight.
The story of O.J. Simpson has become an American morality tale, a myth. It is the story of how all our national sins converged into a single terrible crime. Even after the man at the center is gone, the sins persist.

Jamie Roberts

By Jamie Roberts

Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist with a focus on uncovering corruption and advocating for social justice. With over a decade of experience in the field, Jamie's work has been instrumental in bringing about positive change in various communities.

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2 thoughts on “The Real Reason OJ Simpson Still Captivates Our Conversations”
  1. It’s fascinating how O.J. Simpson’s story continues to capture our attention. His life journey from sports stardom to legal troubles represents a complex intersection of fame and infamy, raising important questions about societal perceptions. The cultural impact of his legacy remains a contentious topic, challenging us to confront uncomfortable truths about our collective values.

  2. Why do you think O.J. Simpson still holds such a strong fascination for the public even years after the Trial of the Century?

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