O.J. Simpson and members of his defense team react as...

O.J. Simpson and members of his defense team react as members of the jury walk into the courtroom in Los Angeles on May 5, 1995. Credit: AP/Reed Saxon

Somewhere within the long, scrolling Wiki-style obits that have been churned out during these past few hours, the ones that attempt to juggle the legacies of an all-time great football player with the person acquitted in a double-murder criminal trial nearly 30 years ago and somehow turn them into one coherent portrait of a man, you may come across a short section where O.J. Simpson’s time as an actor is noted.

It’s a brief reminder of what, in essence, he always was.

Simpson was found liable for the deaths in a civil trial and would later spend nine years in prison for armed robbery and other felonies.

For most of the first half of his life he played the role of the All-American jock better than almost anyone before him had, parlaying that personality into a stardom that lifted him higher than his on-field exploits ever did. From movies to commercials to broadcast booths, he never broke character. Until, of course, that summer of 1994 when he — we? — experienced what remains the most precipitous fall from grace in all of sports history. Even that, however, in its unprecedented juxtaposition of zaniness and gore, felt like a performance of some sort complete with a long list of props (the white Bronco, the bloody glove) and a cast of supporting characters that filled the courtrooms and TV screens of the burgeoning 24-hour-a-day information age.

The lesson that we all learned through watching his various gigs and recitals needs repeating more than ever. Those folks we spend our time gushing over and rooting for and idolizing and defending? The athletes whose jerseys we buy and whose pitched products we purchase just to emulate? We don’t know them. Not really. Because most of them are just playing a role the way Simpson was. Maybe not as deftly. Probably not as deceitfully. But the majority of them are merely actors.

And us? We want to believe them. So very, very badly.

Even when faced with the whole picture, as we have been with Simpson for some time, we often focus only on the parts we want to see. Consider that two well-regarded football organizations came out with statements shortly after Simpson’s death became public that blatantly ignored his dastardly turn.

“O.J. Simpson was the first player to reach a rushing mark many thought could not be attained in a 14-game season when he topped 2,000 yards,” Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said. “His on-field contributions will be preserved in the Hall’s archives in Canton, Ohio.”

The Heisman Trophy Trust, meanwhile, posted on its social media that it “mourns the passing of 1968 Heisman Trophy Winner O.J. Simpson.”

Neither institution needed to comment. When they did, they never mentioned anything that happened after his induction into the Hall in 1985. It was as if he was just another famous ballplayer, not the most infamous of them all.

There have been others, of course, whose apparent valor plummeted. Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner whose prosthetic legs made him an inspiration and Olympic sensation, had a similar downfall to Simpson’s as he was convicted of shooting and killing his girlfriend. Tight end Aaron Hernandez was a rising star for the New England Patriots before being convicted of murder. 

Athletes can be perfect, but people are almost always flawed. 

None of this is to suggest that all icons have dark secrets buried deep in their lockers. There are true gentlemen and gentlewomen who rise to sports stardom. There are stars who in fact are heroes, not because of what they accomplish in games but because of what they contribute to society.

There are far more who pretend to be such than actually are, however.

If Simpson can be asked to leave one enduring legacy to sports fans and society at large, one piece of advice from a complicated and convoluted stint in our consciousness, one last truth in the closing sentences of a lifetime that rarely if ever achieved such honesty, it may be boiled down to this:

Be wary. Be skeptical. Don’t believe the act  . . .  especially when it comes from so skilled an actor.


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