There is a certain irony in the fact that O.J. Simpson was released from prison Saturday night at the same time the nation is engaged in a debate about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
It’s a pretty good bet that if Simpson were playing today, he would not be taking a knee. He was never an activist.
He was at USC in 1968 when there was a threatened black boycott of the Olympics in Mexico City. The boycott never took place, although Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a fist while wearing a black glove on the medals stand to protest. Both were suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee and returned home to death threats.
In a documentary on CBS Saturday night, a clip was aired in which Simpson was asked in 1968 about the proposed boycott.
“Right now I don’t want to be involved,’’ he said. “I’m not in track. I have no comment on the matter.’’
Contrast that with the stand taken by another Los Angeles college superstar at the time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He conducted a one-man boycott and refused to try out for the 1968 Olympic basketball team.
Abdul-Jabbar talked about that decision in a new book entitled, “Coach Wooden and Me.’’
You can Google an excerpt that is quite enlightening. He said he really, really wanted to play.
“But the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country,’’ he wrote.
And Abdul-Jabbar had a problem with International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage. He noted that in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, two Jewish runners were pulled off the 4×100 relay team to appease Hitler. Abdul-Jabbar said it was done on the orders of Brundage, whose construction company was bidding for German contracts.
He didn’t mention that one of the Jewish runners sidelined was Marty Glickman (Sam Stoller was the other), who went on to become a famous announcer in New York. Or that Jesse Owens was put on that relay team, which is why he won four gold medals instead of three.
To his credit, Owens asked that the switch not be made but was told to follow orders.
Anyway, it’s interesting that the two best college athletes in the country in football and basketball were both playing in Los Angeles at the time.
And they couldn’t have been more different.
Simpson had more charisma than Abdul-Jabbar and became a pitchman, notably running through airports in the Hertz commercials.
And Simpson fooled us all. Like everybody else in the media, I considered him one of the good guys. He brought his offensive line – noted as “The Electric Company” – for the press conference when he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and was always a good quote.
We had no idea he battered his wife. Even the 1989 New Year’s Eve incident when he beat Nicole Simpson so badly that she was hospitalized didn’t seem to make a dent in his image.
According to the police report, he said, “This is a family matter. Why do you want to make a big deal out of it when we can handle it.’’
He pleaded no contest and a judge refused a prosecutor’s request that he serve a month in jail. He was allowed to talk to a psychiatrist on the phone.
When NBC hired him as an analyst that fall, he said at a news conference, “It was a bum rap. We had a fight, that’s all.”
Five years later, when Nicole and Ron Goldman, the waiter who was returning sunglasses she left at a restaurant, were found slashed to death at her home, America found out who O.J. Simpson really was.
The Bronco chase was viewed by 100 million people — Super Bowl numbers.
Simpson never appeared in a Super Bowl, but he became the most famous man in America ever charged with murder.
The evidence against Simpson was overwhelming, but his lawyers cleverly played the race card and he was found not guilty. Black America cheered his acquittal (it happened two years after the Watts riots following the acquittal of white officers who beat Rodney King), though he lived in a white world and had little interaction with the black community until the trial. During the trial, he became a symbol of the black-white divide in America.
The Goldman family filed a civil suit and was awarded a $33 million judgment, which he has never paid. They can’t touch his NFL pension, unfortunately.
Shunned by the white executives who once golfed with him after the trial, Simpson moved to Florida and was arrested again after the botched memorabilia heist in Las Vegas.
He was convicted and served nine years before being released on parole. At 70 years old, it remains to be seen if he’s learned any lessons from the prison time or whether he will violate his parole and wind up back in prison again.
Simpson probably needs a lot of therapy to confront his demons, but that’s not likely to happen.
America now knows who he is, but he may not be willing to admit to himself who he really is. He is likely still in denial. After all, he’s O.J. — the Juice.