OP-ED: What Do We Do When Our Cultural Icons Have Complex Legacies?

When I heard that O.J. Simpson died, a few thoughts crossed my mind. Mostly, I needed to write about it: I have a simultaneous fascination with and disdain for football and how the game is an amalgamation of American culture—the dichotomous beauty of the game and the objective destruction of primarily Black bodies for white profit and entertainment. I’ve always been passionate about social activism and how high-profile people, from actors to athletes, use their platforms to promote causes they care about.

I was born after Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, so I missed everything when it was actually happening: the white Bronco, the infamous glove fitting, and, of course, the verdict. I understand the overwhelming joy many Black Americans felt when Simpson was found not guilty. He was on trial, in front of the entire country, for brutally murdering a white woman: just for a moment, think about how many times in American history Black men and boys have been lynched, beaten and tortured because of their perceived threat to white womanhood. O.J. escaped that fate. It was surely cathartic to see what *looked like* a Black man finally being treated fairly by the criminal justice system.

Black America’s celebration and white America’s bewilderment at the result of Simpson’s trial was one of the first times that white Americans were forced to reckon with the fact the justice system often doesn’t deliver on its promise of integrity and due process for all. Something previously invisible to white people—the way American police and the criminal justice system grind down Black people—was suddenly thrust onto the national stage, and everybody had to process it.

But again—I wasn’t alive for this groundbreaking cultural moment. Before watching both O.J.: Made in America and The People v. O.J. Simpson in 2016, I simply thought of O.J. as “that guy who people fight about whether he’s a murderer or not.” Watching those two series was the first time I understood the depth of what his trial meant for America.

However, what didn’t seem to be clear to people at the time was how Simpson’s legal team painted him to be a Black man railroaded by the justice system, but in reality, before his trial, O.J. never publicly spoke on Black issues. In fact, people in his close circles remark how he often said “(he’s) not Black. (He’s) O.J.” For his entire professional career, he actively distanced himself from all things Black: when Rodney King was beaten in L.A. and when Muhammad Ali refused the Vietnam draft, O.J. was staunchly silent. He had close ties with the LAPD and his legal team poured everything into emphasizing his Blackness to make their story of a man framed by police more plausible to the jury.

To me, he looked guilty. And I don’t know where this leaves us: his trial exposed a deeply flawed justice system entrenched in antiBlack racism. At the same time, O.J. only embraced his Blackness when it came time to save his own skin and to think about it that way feels like a slap in the face to the Black community. Is his legacy as a legendary athlete enough that we feel comfortable sitting in that disappointment? Is it tarnishing Simpson’s memory if every time we speak of him, we bring up his murder trial? 

I believe we as a society can think critically about what to do when celebrities disappoint us. It gets harder when there are the added layers of race and fandom—ultimately, we aren’t friends with famous people and putting aside our passion as fans is often difficult. But it’s possible to acknowledge O.J.’s athletic prowess and the fact that he absolutely encountered racism in his life, while also not excusing the brutality he inflicted on the people around him. If we’re going to remember O.J. Simpson, let’s remember all of him and what his story taught us about race in America. 

Updated: April 15, 2024 — 6:01 pm