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.
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 award–winning 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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.