By: Kate Boyd
“If the glove didn’t fit, you must acquit.” A simple, yet famous quote that still over 20 years later can fuel us with anger. Today, if you find yourself at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, New York, and happen to take a look at the ring of fame, there’s one name in particular that might catch your eye and spark some anger as well, O.J. Simpson. Not the first name that typically comes to mind when you think of the NFL Hall of Fame. Do today’s kids even know he was an athlete? Probably not, for the most of us “athlete” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when we see O.J. Simpson’s name, even if it is still up in The Ralph today. However, Simpson was a profound athlete and whether America likes it or not he earned his name up there.
The country was first introduced to Simpson in the late 1960s when he played at USC as a promising running back. “Simpson was not only the greatest player I ever had — he was the greatest player anyone ever had,” said John McKay, his coach at USC. Two years later, after rushing for 1,709 yards and scoring 22 touchdowns, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 1968. The following year he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the first pick of the draft. In just a couple of years in the NFL, O.J. became the first running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. He later played in three Pro Bowls, and eventually in 1979 he retired as the number 2 rusher in NFL history, with 11,236 yards and 61 touchdowns. On Thanksgiving of 1976, OJ had what most Buffalo fans would call his best game. He scored two touchdowns and rushed for 273 yards, breaking the record (since broken) for the most rushed yards in a single game. While O.J. was playing the great game of football, he had also been taking on a handful of commercial roles. Once retired from the NFL, he continued to take on more roles with some parts in films including “The Naked Gun,” “The Towering Inferno” and “Capricorn One.” He then landed himself a job, sticking in the realm of sports, with ABC as a commentator for “Monday Night Football” and later helped call games for NBC.
At this time, America loved O.J. He signified an American ideal in the stir of the Civil Rights Movement. He was a black man relating to and living with white men and women as if he were a white man himself. Dyson describes this well by describing an O.J. that most Americans don’t remember, “He was not seen as the African American athlete who was rebellious: Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron…He was accepted in golf clubs that were very tony. He was accepted into the elite circles of white society. He fit in. He didn’t raise a ruckus. He didn’t make white people feel guilty for their historic legacy of slavery. He didn’t point out white supremacy. He didn’t talk about racial inequality.” White mainstream America accepted him like no other athlete before. At this period of time, racism and segregation were present and O.J. lived his golden years pretending that they didn’t exist, and he benefitted from this by being collectively loved by the majority of America. These were pre O.J. Trial views of Simpson.
On June 12, 1994, O.J. Simpson’s first wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were murdered outside Nicole’s home, which wasn’t too far from where O.J. was currently living. The police immediately started to single O.J. out as a suspect, as he was known for a history of domestic violence. This day marked the start of a long journey O.J. would encounter and an important day for race relations in America. Simpson’s trial was the talk of the town, or better said, the talk of the country. Everyone in America was following the trial because it held so many fascinations to us Americans. When you combine America’s fascination with Simpson’s universally beloved character, and being a well-known athlete, on top of the idea of race in America, and now a murder trial, you get a pretty intrigued country.
“You’ll never be able to hear O.J. Simpson’s name or even watch the great vintage footage of O.J. Simpson as one of the very greatest players who ever lived without thinking of this tragedy,” said broadcaster Bob Costas, who worked NBC’s NFL studio show with Simpson. “But that’s the consequence of what happened.”
It’s important to note the views that the country had regarding race and racial stereotypes at the time of O.J.’s Trial. Whites were seen as wealthier and part of the higher and respected class. A CNN report tells us that in 1995, the year of O.J.’s verdict, whites had seven times the wealth of blacks. African Americans on the other hand were working class, associated with violence, drugs, sex crimes, and couldn’t get away with things like murder. This is what makes O.J. Simpson’s trial so influential. America’s beloved athlete challenged the status quo of race. He was an icon for both African Americans and whites. He was an African American athlete whom white people loved and African Americans respected and could relate to his past. It was Simpson’s work as an athlete that ultimately gave him his sense of status in black America and white America.
As soon as O.J. was charged with a double murder he lost his appeal to most white Americans. That once heroic, charming, All-American Athlete guy was gone. He was then viewed by them as back to where he came from, the stereotypical, violent, criminal, uneducated, African American male. A poll taken following right after the 1995 verdict said 27% of blacks believed that O.J, compared to 73% of whites. White Americans lost that previous sense of identity that they had once shared with O.J. Even O.J. didn’t identify himself the same way. Unlike his pre-trial days, he was purposefully identifying as black, him and his defense team were “pulling the race card.” They were playing off of the stereotypes in society about African Americans not being treated fairly. This wasn’t that difficult to do when the prosecution team was throwing around racial names directed towards Simpson and refusing to acknowledge the discrimination towards African Americans from the LAPD. A report about the LAPD in 1991 says that “the department failed to adequately discipline a ‘problem group’ of officers with the most number of complaints of brutality and shooting. In the period studied, 243 officers had four or more allegations of improper tactics, and 10 percent of all officers accounted for 33 percent of all use of force. The performance reviews of many of these offices often took no account of these complaints.” Along with a long history of injustices towards African Americans in the U.S. Justice System, African Americans were influenced by a combination of these factors, leaving them to see the trial through a lens of race, which helped to lead to O.J.’s verdict of not guilty with 9 African Americans sitting on the Jury.
The majority of the country was shocked. Whites believed that he should have been locked up, blacks believed that it was time to stop racial injustices, but both believed he was not innocent. The O.J. Trial is a great example of racial disparity. It shows how race can be influential in our Justice System and that race does lead to injustices. Even further, it shows us what’s wrong with our justice system and that it’s flawed. Now you might ask, how did African Americans accept O.J. as not guilty, when inside actually believed that he had done it? As, Michael Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania said, “don’t hate the player; hate the game.” This was the mindset that many African Americans had out of their anger towards racial injustices in the courts. They were happy for whites to see a flawed system. In their minds we shouldn’t hate O.J., but we should hate the game, the racial disparity and stereotypes, and how they lead to injustice. Dyson does a good job of getting the African American point of view across by saying, “O.J. was a term that represented every black person that got beat up by the criminal justice system, and now we have found some vindication, and guess what, white America? It was with a black man that you loved. It was with a black man that you said was better than us. It was with a black man that you said wasn’t like us. He was different than we are. He wasn’t a troublemaker, He didn’t’ cause racial consternation, or he wasn’t controversial. The very guy you thought was so perfect turns out to be the one who turned the tables on you. That was a delicious irony of the victory.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I still believe O.J. did it and I think that he should have been found guilty. However, I’m thankful for this event as I am with any significant event that leads our country in a better direction. O.J. being found acquitted for the murder charges shouldn’t be seen as a sort of payback for our historical injustices involving race. Rather, it should be viewed as a wake up call. A wake up call that race is still an issue today from our basketball courts to our Supreme Courts. All it took was one famous and respectable athlete to mess up for us to understand how influential race is in our society.