O.J. Simpson’s Post-NFL Life Forever Destroyed the Athlete Fairytale

His legacy obviously does not encompass football, and the further away we get from the decade he so clearly dominated, the deeper we get into an era partially of his own making.
Simpson's legacy now obviously does not encompass football
Simpson's legacy now obviously does not encompass football / Jason Bean / USA TODAY NETWORK

With sincerest apologies to those who directly associate O.J. Simpson with the loss of a loved one, our societal reality is such that most of us could very easily and correctly argue that Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco chase was the advent of how we digest major news stories. The (largely needless, haughty and panic-based) 24-hour nature of our consumption crawled out from underneath our collective gawking at this moment impossible to understand at the time. Here was an NFL legend, an omnipresent actor, broadcaster and pitchman fleeing from accusations that he murdered both his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. 

Our inability to look away was capitalized upon, and life has never been the same. 

But as we make sense of Orenthal James Simpson, who died Wednesday at the age of 76, we must also consider how the allegations, and, really, the rest of his life after acquittal, informed the way the athletic space was viewed by the general public in perpetuity. Just like the cross section of athletes and their private romantic lives are now starting to become a wildly popular subcategory of news thanks to Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift, athletes’ personal struggles, misdeeds, and the breaking down of walls between sports icons and blind deification and hero worship was truly set into motion through the trial of Simpson. 

The lens through which we viewed politics changed in modern times thanks to Watergate and, in other ways, during the Gary Hart–Donna Rice affair of the 1980s. We began covering politics like sports and entertainment, and, after Simpson, began covering sports like hard news. While there are likely plenty of examples to the contrary, it seems Simpson’s career trajectory, from NFL Hall of Famer, MVP, rushing champion, scoring leader and jersey retiree to defendant in the most high-profile murder trial in American history, made the Disney-fication of every athlete’s supposedly glorious life impossible from here on out, unless the subject matter was exclusive to children.  

That was certainly true for other high-profile trials involving athletes in the aftermath of Simpson such as the Rae Carruth saga, the Aaron Hernandez case, situations involving Barry Bonds, Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, Kellen Winslow, Ray Lewis and so on. But, it undoubtedly crept into our everyday understanding of every famous athlete. Please, PLEASE, don’t interpret this as a blanket statement that we assume all athletes are criminals. I’m simply saying that we now don’t operate under the false assumption that their lives are completely perfect and free of the same chaos and turbulence normally associated with the common man. The allegations made against Simpson were haunting, and undoubtedly jaded a generation of sports fans unable to celebrate someone blindly. 

We don’t simply kowtow. We note the complexities. There is something else there. A heft to the story. A counterbalance. 

Simpson was an incredible football player. He is still one of the 25 most prolific running backs in NFL history in terms of total yardage. The slow-motion highlights do not justify a defense’s complete and total inability to bring Simpson down despite the haplessness of the offenses around him. It is now cliché to say that everyone in the stadium knew he was getting the ball and it didn’t matter. But, that cliché was largely derived from broadcasters trying to find something else to say when watching Simpson. 

“If you start a conversation about O.J. Simpson and begin with what a great tailback he was, initially people are confused and then they get mad,” the author Chuck Klosterman said when introducing Simpson in NFL Films’ 100 Greatest Players of All Time list (Simpson was No. 40). “Talking about him as a football player, it seems like we’re overlooking the obvious.” 

Klosterman’s prediction, in that same clip, was that Simpson’s football career would not be mentioned until paragraph five of his obituary. I suppose he was off by just a little bit. 

But his legacy now obviously does not encompass football because the further away from the decade Simpson so clearly dominated, the deeper we get into an era partially of his making through the murder trial. Through the subsequent arrests. Through the publication of a book hypothetically discussing the murders. Through the wrongful-death conviction. We now assume that all is not well, which is an especially eerie default setting for a generation of sports fans who came before Simpson and had little knowledge of, or access to, information about the people they sat in awe watching.

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John Pluym


John Pluym is the managing editor for NFL and golf content at Sports Illustrated. A sports history buff, he previously spent 10 years at ESPN overseeing NFL coverage. John has won several awards throughout his career, including from the Society of News Design and Associated Press Sports Editors. As a native Minnesotan, he enjoys spending time on his boat and playing golf.