O.J. Simpson Was Proof We Don’t Really Know Celebrities

It’s hard to grasp the former football star and actor’s time in the limelight, especially his acquittal in a gruesome double-murder case in the 1990s and the precipitous fall from grace that followed.
O.J. Simpson on the set of the movie “Fire Fight” in 1978.
O.J. Simpson on the set of the movie “Fire Fight” in 1978. / Lane Stewart/SI

Editors’ note: O.J. Simpson died on Wednesday “after a battle with cancer,” his family announced via social media.

O.J. Simpson taught us how futile our journalism can be, how pointless our pontifications, how useless our observations. Even as we delved ever deeper into our subjects—in probing features, psycho-profiles, blanket coverage that ought to have revealed all—he showed us just how worthless this really was. If we didn’t know Simpson, one of the most accessible celebrities of our time, well, we didn’t really know anybody.

And we didn’t know Simpson. Perfectly bland, pleasant and agreeable, he parlayed his athletic success into any number of public pursuits. A 1968 Heisman Trophy winner at USC, a six-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills and the only player ever to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a 14-game NFL season, Simpson seemed to move as effortlessly through film and TV roles as he did through defensive lines. He was everywhere, it seemed, his sheer likability making up for his sheer lack of acting talent. He was in the Monday Night Football booth, he was in airport lobbies racing for a rental car, he was in the Naked Gun film trilogy. His easy, non-threatening grin was a part of our celebrity culture.

Until 1994, that is, when his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, a waiter from a nearby restaurant, were found dead outside her Los Angeles condominium in a pool of blood. It was a particularly heinous crime—somebody lay in wait to slash their throats—and it was at first unthinkable that Simpson, regardless of his previous troubles with Nicole, could have committed so grisly a double murder. The circumstances did not square with this public personality. It was beyond shocking. He was immediately acquitted, at least by the public, by reason of familiarity.

O.J. Simpson’s trial on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1994.
O.J. Simpson’s trial on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1994. / Ken Lubas/Los Angeles Times

Forensic evidence and Simpson’s own squirrely behavior began to suggest otherwise. Although it was not an investigation that could produce an airtight case (the lead detectives were nicknamed Dumb and Dumber), it soon appeared beyond any reasonable doubt that Simpson was indeed the killer. He didn’t help his case when he initiated a widely televised slow-speed chase down the 405 Freeway—was he heading for Mexico, was he going to kill himself? (Simpson had a gun to his head while riding in the back of the car.) There is a generation that, on hearing the words “white Bronco,” will always be snapped back to that bizarre motorcade.

Simpson’s was certainly the “Trial of the Century,” even on such a crowded docket as the 1900s’, and we have the metrics to prove it. More than half the U.S. tuned in for the verdict, the dénouement of our most gripping reality show ever. There were twists and turns, celebrity lawyers (to that same generation, Dream Team means something more than an Olympic basketball squad), the most appalling physical evidence and even comic relief. Again, the name Kato Kaelin is one of those time-specific references, not quite Proust’s madeleine but something like it.

The verdict turned out to be more a referendum on the corruption of Los Angeles law enforcement than a clearing of Simpson’s name. Simpson’s lead attorney, Johnnie Cochran, had artfully seeded doubt in a racially tilted system even as he was rhyming catch phrases (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”), earning his client freedom, if not exoneration. The verdict seemed to astound legal experts, but public satisfaction with it broke completely along racial lines, probably telling us more about the country than it did about the crime in Brentwood.

The issue was apparently less clouded when a civil trial was held later to extract damages from Simpson. He was quickly and unanimously found guilty, and the victims’ families divided up his surprisingly substantial wealth. The split verdicts in the criminal and civil trials might not have been decisive, but let’s look at those proceedings in another light: There was never any further search for Nicole’s killer.

That it ended with such a judicial whimper, with Simpson being punished only financially (while he avoided a prison sentence, all but his NFL pension of $25,000 per month was seized), was deeply unsatisfying. Simpson was no longer a suspected murderer or a putative movie star. He moved to Florida, where he became a kind of smirking pariah, playing golf and profiting as best he could from the whole mess, even attempting to orchestrate a shameful book/TV deal that was to be called If I Did It.

Simpson wandered through this purgatory, a winking scofflaw, getting into beefs over cable piracy and road etiquette, small-time stuff. His athlete’s aura had long since dissipated, his former glory so distant that it was no longer possible to picture him on a football field—or anywhere, really, but a courtroom.

O.J. Simpson looks on from the Buffalo Bills’ sideline.
Simpson’s accomplishments on the field once made him a national hero. / Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Perhaps he missed it more than he thought, that wonderful prime that had receded into a haze of misdemeanor charges, character assassination, civil suits. He was once a remarkable athlete, you know, and while he knew full well that he could no longer insist on that legacy, there was no reason he couldn’t keep a bit of its spoils for himself. And so, in 2007, he assembled an ad hoc gang at a Las Vegas casino and stormed a hotel room, attempting to recover some sports memorabilia that he claimed was his, artifacts of a time when he really was the nation’s hero.

It was an absurd invasion, laughable, except that a gun was involved. It was this ridiculous caper that finally tripped him up, a stupid little escapade that—incredibly—could have put him away for 33 years, but Simpson was granted parole in 2017 and then released early from parole on good behavior in 2021. Las Vegas prosecutors did with a vengeance what their Los Angeles brethren couldn’t manage. Over some stuff. A judicial whimper, indeed.

It’s interesting to note that the Las Vegas case, a civic comeuppance of sorts, attracted almost no attention—a few cameras, some tabloid coverage, hardly anything else. The mainstream media, which had acted almost in outrage after he mocked our certainty about his character in that first go-round, now found him too transparent for our interest, without the capacity for surprise. It took some time, but we had gotten to know him after all.

Published |Modified
Richard Hoffer