The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

O.J. Simpson is a relic in a new culture that celebrates unapologetic blackness The Juice re-enters American society at its most divided since his ‘Trial of the Century’

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” / Okay / House n—a, don’t f— with me / I’m a field n—a with shined cutlery.

— Jay-Z, 2017’s “The Story of O.J.


Fate has a fetish for O.J. Simpson. Oct. 1 is nearly 22 years to the day of both his acquittal after the double-murder trial that captivated the world and nine years since being sentenced for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. Both happened on an Oct. 3. And now the sharp winds of the judicial and correctional system once again gust in the direction of the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner. After serving nine years, the man known as “Prisoner 1027820” in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center is free.

Emphasis on free. Because what does it mean? What has it ever meant? And can O.J. Simpson, in particular, ever truly obtain freedom? He re-enters American society at its most divided since his “Trial of the Century,” and we are right now in an era defined by social, cultural and racial injustices — and the resistance and protests against them. The line between sports, culture and politics is as blurred and polarizing as it’s been since the 1960s. And the black world that Simpson sought to escape via football and a white wife is a world he can no longer run from — if he ever could. “The heartbreaking truth is,” says columnist and author Rochelle Riley, “O.J. Simpson is coming out of prison, and having to wake up black.”


Simpson’s former employer, the National Football League, looks a lot different from the one that existed before his 2008 conviction. There are Ezekiel Elliott’s crop tops and Dez Bryant’s custom Air Jordan cleats, Richard Sherman’s and Marshawn Lynch’s locks, and Odell Beckham’s Head & Shoulders-endorsed blond hair. There’s the NFL’s more cautious style of play apropos of player safety. Some aspects remain the same though — like the ongoing issue of the league’s embarrassing, harmful and erratically applied discipline for domestic violence offenders.

The NFL’s biggest lightning rod isn’t even in the league. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, intended to shine light on police brutality and the inequalities that persist within the criminal justice system, has reverberated far beyond football. Athletes like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Oakland A’s rookie Bruce Maxwell and the WNBA’s Indiana Fever have lent support to the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller.

Kaepernick’s won adoration from and influenced Stevie Wonder, Tina Lawson, Chuck D, Carlos Santana, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, J. Cole and others. Jay-Z donned a custom Colin Kaepernick jersey on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, as Nick Cannon rocked a classic one at a recent St. Louis protest after the acquittal of Police Officer Jason Stockley for the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. His No. 7 San Francisco 49ers jersey is now in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture announced in May that various Kaepernick items will be featured in future exhibits.

There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

The NFL also sits embroiled in a beef with President Donald Trump over protests inspired by Kaepernick — the same Donald Trump who entertained the idea of a reality show with Simpson back in 2008. And while we’re on reality shows, Simpson enters a world dominated by Kardashians. Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been a fixture in American pop culture since its premiere, 10 years ago this month. The family became famous during the fracas of Simpson’s first trial, where attorney Robert Kardashian — Simpson’s close friend and father of Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob — was part of O.J.’s legal “Dream Team.” Kim’s husband, the Adidas designer and Grammy awardwinning producer/rapper/cultural live wire Kanye West, references Simpson in 2016’s “THat Part”: I just left the strip club, got some glitter on me/ Wifey gonna kill me, she the female O.J.

Where we are now is this: Athletes and entertainers (and many, many others) have called the president of the United States outside of his name — and the president and his supporters clap back, tit for tat. There’s a culture war going on, and while it’s different from the 1960s and ’70s, it’s a vibe O.J. is all too familiar with. He’s seen it move like this before.

Getty Images

Consider the American psyche leading up to the pivotal year of 1967, Simpson’s first season as tailback at the University of Southern California, a private, predominantly white institution surrounded by black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In 1961, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the “Freedom Riders.” Fifty-seven percent viewed lunch counter “sit-ins” as hurtful “to the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.” The 1963 March on Washington was viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of voters. And by January 1967, 53 percent of voters believed black people, instead of protesting for equal rights, would be better off taking “advantage of the opportunities that have been made available.”

Compare all this to a survey conducted by Global Strategy Group for ESPN from Sept. 26-28, just days before Simpson’s release. A clear racial divide exists: 72 percent of African-Americans strongly or somewhat agree with the protests, which were started by Kaepernick last season. Sixty-two percent of white people strongly or somewhat disagree. Other polls revealed similar numbers.

In 1967, like in 2017, everybody makes the decisions they make. On April 28, 1967, when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing induction into the U.S. Army, the revolt of the black athlete entered the living rooms of Americans. This was the same year O.J. Simpson rushed into USC immortality and the American consciousness with 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns. This was the same year that, on Thanksgiving Day, Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State, organized the Western Regional Black Youth Conference. The gathering of about 200 people discussed the possibility of boycotting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans were there, as was UCLA’s star center Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). “Winning gold medals for a country where I don’t have my freedom is irrelevant,” Smith said at the meeting. “So far I have not won my freedom, and I will not turn back from my decision.” Alcindor refused to try out for the Olympic team, prompting critics to label him a national disgrace and an “uppity n—–.”

Though at a Western school, O.J. Simpson didn’t attend the conference. His epic 64-yard touchdown vs. UCLA, less than a week before, propelled USC to the national championship. Edwards had approached Simpson about lending his name and influence to the cause. Simpson disassociated himself from the movement, famously telling Edwards, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” Smith and Carlos’ decision to speak out hurt their careers, in Simpson’s eyes. He wasn’t going down like that. “He absolutely distances himself from everything, which turns out to be a pretty good career move,” says Dr. Matthew Andrews. “It opens up all these doors in advertising, movies and so on.”

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy defined 1968. Riots erupted throughout the country. Black America had seemingly reached its breaking point. The defiant and painful image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power fists at the Mexico City Olympics ingrained itself in sports and American history. Meanwhile, O.J.’s celebrity ballooned as he separated himself from the swelling movement. He won the Heisman in 1968 and was the first overall selection in the 1969 draft. For the next two and a half decades, Simpson enjoyed the fruits of his decision and became one of the most recognizable, marketable and celebrated black men in America.


“You see, O.J. was under that illusion — ain’t been black since he was 17. Under that illusion of inclusion — [until he] got That N—- Wake-Up Call. Only n—- I know that could get on any golf course in America. They loved that boy! He had to come home when it got rough.”Paul Mooney, 1994

Simpson’s goal seemed to be: live a deracinated life. He didn’t want to make white people uncomfortable. He was handsome, charming and safe — and so, with 1969’s Chevrolet deal, became the first black corporate pitchman before playing a down in the NFL. Long after his playing career, Simpson was one of the few black faces on screen, as an actor or a commentator, during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “O.J.’s providing a very meaningful image for black kids in America,” said Ezra Edelman recently. He’s the Oscar-winning director of 2016’s O.J.: Made In America. “He deserves his due for the way he influenced culture, beyond being on trial for murder in 1994 and ’95.”

O.J. Simpson for Hertz, in 1978

Master Tesfatsion, 26, doesn’t remember the “Trial of the Century.” He’s a Redskins beat reporter for The Washington Post, and one of his most recent stories is about cornerback Josh Norman pledging $100,000 to Puerto Rico’s victims of Hurricane Maria. Tesfatsion’s first memory of O.J. is the 1997 civil case that ordered Simpson to pay $25 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Growing up Eritrean-American in Section 8 housing in Irving, Texas, Tesfatsion’s early O.J. knowledge primarily came from the neighborhood. “I just trusted the OGs,” he says. “If everyone on the block was telling you O.J. ain’t do it, what are you supposed to think?”

“O.J. really is this wisp of memory that is not as important because so much has happened since.”

Tesfatsion’s generation? They were kids when Simpson’s criminal trial happened. And they are well-aware of how deeply racial dynamics and police distrust played into Simpson’s case, and into their own lives. “People always think because you have a certain wealth status, whether it’s white people or even black people who are rich, they think they can escape colorism,” says the Arizona State graduate. “O.J. has proven on the highest of levels that that’s not the case.”

Tesfatsion remembers the passion the case evoked in his parents, and what was clearly two different Americas. So many white people mourned the not guilty verdict. So many black people celebrated quietly, or as if it were an NBA Finals victory for the home team. “The heartbreaking point about O.J.,” says Riley, whose The Burden: African-Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery is being published in February, “is not whether he got away with murder — if he did — but black Americans have been so mistreated and denied justice so many times and for so long that his acquittal was seen as a needed win.”

Simpson is a poster child for race and the legal system, but for Tesfatsion’s generation, he’s not on whom they hang their hat. Simpson’s verdict now of course has rivals in cases that have come to define this generation’s adulthood. “For a generation and a half, O.J. is not this larger-than-life person who meant so much, and who people paid attention to so much,” says Riley. “[O.J.] really is this wisp of memory that is not as important, because so much has happened since.”

Many of the same factors that came into play during the “Trial of the Century”—black bodies, white superiority complexes, and the assumption of black guilt have defined the cases of the Sandra Blands, Philando Castiles, Tamir Rices and Michael Browns. There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

“[Trayvon] was mine,” says Tesfatsion. “It was crazy how caught up I was into it.” Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict was delivered on his 22nd birthday. “To expect one thing, and see the other result, you know, as an African-American, the anger that you feel and the disappointment you feel it’s hard to explain.”


The question no one can truly answer is what happens next for O.J. Simpson. Fresh out of jail, he missed the entire presidency of Barack Obama and enters a world driven by Donald Trump — whose Twitter-fueled presidency has roots in the 24/7, reality-TV celebrity obsession culture rooted in the insanity that was his first trial. Rumors of a return to Hollywood even exist.

Former football legend O.J. Simpson signs documents at the Lovelock Correctional Center, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Lovelock, Nev. Simpson was released from the Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada early Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.

Brooke Keast/Nevada Department of Corrections via AP

But if there’s one reality starkly different from the one Simpson encountered pre-prison—and the beginning of it was the 24/7 coverage of his trial — it’s the extinction of the veil of anonymity. Does he attempt to live a life of modesty and recluse? Or has a nearly decade-long, state-mandated vacation done little to change him? Simpson’s been called a sociopath, one who craves constant attention strictly on his terms. Yet social media, his lawyers suggest, won’t be an issue for him. But he’s never dealt with the monster that is this iteration of media: social breaks stories and develops narratives before the first byline is written. Cameras don’t just sit on shoulders anymore, they sit in the palms of everybody’s hands. One click equals global broadcast.

Many already aren’t willing to deal with the potential fallout. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is attempting to bar him from the state — the same Sunshine State that houses the infamous generational antagonist George Zimmerman.

Dr. Andrews thinks that whatever the case, it will be interesting. “Which O.J. is he going to be? One would argue that pre-trial O.J. would distance himself from what many NFL players are doing. Certainly distancing himself from what Kaepernick’s doing. What Kaepernick did is exactly what [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos did in 1968. O.J. wanted no parts of that. [This] O.J. might get it a little more.”

But, Andrews asks, “Do you really want O.J. to be the spokesperson for this battle in racial justice?”

Riley is more than willing to answer. “The most important thing he could do for himself and America is to not answer the question,” Riley says. “To not weigh in and not try and make himself relevant in any way that he shouldn’t.”

It’s not just the NFL, and O.J. Simpson, but America itself that sits at a crossroads. All three face illness they never really addressed let alone medicated. O.J. walked out of prison Sunday a ghostlike relic of injustices he ignored, injustices he experienced and injustices he helped create. There is undeniable irony in karma greeting Simpson more harshly than his generational contemporaries. Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Smith, Carlos and so many others were in their early 20s fighting demons older than America itself. The athletes were considered pariahs then but stand as saints of progress now. The same will one day be said about Colin Kaepernick. And about those for whom the killings of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown and others inspire a lifetime of resistance and service.

This is the third time O.J. Simpson experiences the first day of the rest of his life. Everybody isn’t that lucky.

Locker Room Talk: What kind of black man will O.J. Simpson be now? Chris Darden, a prosecutor in the ’95 murder trial, says money and fame got him off again

What type of black man will O.J. Simpson be when he gets out of prison?

Simpson was convicted in 2008 of kidnapping, armed robbery and other charges related to a botched sports memorabilia holdup in a Las Vegas hotel room. On Thursday in Nevada, a parole board granted Simpson’s request for parole.

So now what? At age 70 and presumably in the fourth quarter of his life, what role will Simpson play? What kind of black man will he choose to be?

When the decision was announced Thursday, I was in a Manhattan television studio with Christopher Darden, the former prosecutor who was part of the team that prosecuted Simpson in the double murder trial of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1995. Darden listened intently to Simpson’s testimony before the parole board.

When the board gave its unanimous decision, Darden said he was not disappointed but not surprised.

“I think he is more than a subtle reminder of how money and fame provide him and people like him a different standard of justice,” Darden said.

I asked Darden what he would like to see Simpson do, going forward.

“I don’t know that there is anything positive he can do or contribute,” Darden said. “He beat the murders. You would have hoped that would have changed him, that he would have been a changed man, that he would have appreciated his freedom more, that he would have invested in becoming a more positive public figure. He didn’t.”

Simpson was acquitted of murder charges but was found liable in a wrongful death civil lawsuit.

What kind of black man will O.J. Simpson be now that he has been granted his freedom after serving nearly nine years?

I’ve asked variations of this question of Simpson for more than 40 years, going back to the fall of 1975 when we first met.

I was on assignment then for Ebony magazine, which I had joined a year earlier as an associate editor. My assignment was to spend a week in Buffalo, New York, with O.J., who at the time was completing his seventh season with the Bills. Despite the passage of time, a couple of scenes and conversations stand out.

I remember playing the card game bid whist on Simpson’s living room floor and talking a lot of trash. Don’t ask me why that stands out, but it does. Perhaps because playing whist has always been one of those superficial but real measures of blackness. Given the debates surrounding the depths of Simpson’s blackness, that was revealing.

What also stands out — and this is particularly relevant to the arc of Simpson’s life — were our conversations around the politics of change and transition. I was two years into my career with Ebony; Simpson was winding down his pro football career and was transitioning into acting. Two years after the story was published, Simpson was traded to San Francisco, where he ended his Hall of Fame career.

Other than Muhammad Ali, Simpson was the most prominent athlete of his era, certainly among black athletes. He was the clean-cut, clean-shaven star who married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had three children. Four years after our interview, the youngest child drowned at the family’s Los Angeles home while Simpson was in Buffalo.

The Simpsons divorced that same year.

During our conversation in 1975, Simpson stressed repeatedly that he would not be boxed in by his so-called image. “Whatever image I have is based on the way I see things and the way I live, and I don’t want anybody to all of a sudden try to stop my personal growth and confine me to some special niche.”

During the same conversation, Simpson said he would not be boxed in by racism, he would not allow being a black man in America to determine the neighborhood in which he lived or the acting roles he pursued.

“I want to be a good actor in all areas,” he said at the time, “not just a good black Super Fly.” Simpson said his Super Fly comment was not a swipe at Ron O’Neil, the star of the iconic movie, part of a genre of so-called blaxploitation films. “Don’t get me wrong, Ryan O’Neal is a good actor, but he’s been limited by his parts.”

In 1975, Simpson was already running through airports, wearing designer sunglasses. He still has options. How he uses those options will be critical to how he is perceived in the court of public opinion.

The buzz surrounding Thursday’s parole hearing extended the fascination with Simpson’s life that has existed for decades. The public was riveted by the Bronco chase. The fascination with Simpson’s life led filmmaker Ezra Edelman to do a riveting five-part Academy Award-winning documentary for ESPN, O.J.: Made in America.

In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in what became known as the “trial of the century.”

On Thursday, Simpson’s attorney conceded that his client continues to be a polarizing figure.

In the court of public opinion, O.J. Simpson may forever be guilty. But on Thursday, Simpson was made a free man, effective Oct. 1.

“I’d like to see him pay on that judgment,” Darden said, referring to the civil suit. “I’d like some real contrition an apology, something to give comfort to the victims. Then I’d like to see him go on with his life, be with his family and just be quiet.”

Mostly, Darden said, he wants to put the O.J. saga behind him.

“I’m ready to go sit down and shut up about the whole dammed thing if he will,” Darden said, referring to Simpson. “I mean that, sincerely. I’m trying not to dwell in the past. I’m concerned about what my future is going to be and how I’m going to live. That’s all that matters to me right now.”

And I’m eager to read this next chapter of the O.J. Simpson story.

Now that a Nevada parole board has set Simpson free, I wonder, what kind of black man O.J. will be?

Daily Dose: 2/27/17 All Oscars, all the time

The Morning Roast was a fun one this week, even though your boy was low on energy. Here’s Sunday’s show and, remember, if you subscribe and leave a review, you’ll be in on the ground floor of awesome. Or something.

Steve Harvey wins the day. After the scene that was at the end of the Oscars on Sunday night, he’s 100 percent vindicated for whatever happened at that Miss Universe contest. But more importantly: HOW. DOES. THIS. HAPPEN!?! So many things had to go wrong. But that final part, where Warren Beatty didn’t feel compelled to speak up and Faye Dunaway just read the big words on the card? That’s how institutionalized power works. Neither one of them had the wits to do the right thing and just say: Hey, there’s a mistake. Total debacle all around, alas.

Moonlight, however, won the night. Mahershala Ali took home the award for best supporting actor and was extremely eloquent and gracious in his speech. His wife just had a baby, so he got up there and commended her on how well she’s handled everything, considering she was pregnant during awards season. Also, the pictures that came out of the red carpet and the weekend were great. The kids from the movie were having a blast the entire time, which they deserved. Ali was the first Muslim actor to win that award.

As for the rest of the night, there was a lot. Let’s run down the list. People Magazine‘s editorial director actually said “Hidden Fences” and caught insta-shade from Robin Roberts. Halle Berry broke out a new wig and it was promptly snatched by Twitter. Taraji P. Henson was slaying, too. Host Jimmy Kimmel tried to trick a bunch of people into making fools of themselves, then they stole the show. Viola Davis gave us the best acceptance speech we’ve seen since her last one. Oh, and the Oscars put up a picture of someone who is very much alive during the “In Memoriam” segment.

Ezra Edelman is now an Oscar winner. I say that with much joy, because I was lucky enough to meet him and talk with him after his documentary O.J.: Made In America aired on national television. It deservedly won the best documentary feature award and when Ezra got on stage, he made it clear why he made the film at all. I’ve said this before, but what’s wild is that O.J. Simpson still might get out of prison and live his life on the outside for some time. I wonder what this third chapter will bring.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The film that won for best documentary short is one called The White Helmets, which is about the Syria Civil Defense, a group that works to rescue people from rubble following air strikes. One sad development is that the cinematographer of the film never made it to Hollywood. The Syrian government interfered.

Snack Time: Another really awkward moment came when Jimmy Kimmel picked up Sunny Pawar from Lion in some attempt to recreate something out of The Lion King. Luckily, Pawar saved it. And his shoes were super dope.

Dessert: You know it was lit when The New York Times aired an actual TV ad during the show. Here it is.