The FX television series The People v. O.J. Simpson that concluded last week was vastly better than I expected it to be. It was splendidly cast except for the title character, Cuba Gooding Jr. bearing minimal resemblance to the football hero I had known not very well — and less well than I thought.
During Simpson’s final season, with the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, I covered the NFL beat in Atlanta and was assigned to write “a takeout” (meaning a lengthy article) on O.J. Simpson to run in the Sunday Journal-Constitution.
I knew, without them explicitly saying so, the editors were looking for a tribute to a Heisman Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer making his farewell tour. My story should be nothing that might elicit complaints from more than a handful of readers.
Simpson, who no doubt sensed this was going to be favorable pub, was relaxed and generous with his time at the 49ers’ training facility. He granted me one-on-one access for about 20 minutes once he was finished with his post-practice routine. Most of his teammates already had left the building.
I don’t remember much about the interview except that he was very cordial, that he seemed like a nice person, that, most of all, he liked to talk, and he talked very well.
And he did have a compelling narrative, arising from a low-rent district, if there can be such a thing in San Francisco. His was an up-from-the-bootstraps tale that makes the barkeeper’s son Marco Rubio look like a crown prince.
But when I chatted with reporters who were covering the 49ers beat at the time, I heard that the Juice was not well liked by his teammates. They regarded him as aloof, extremely arrogant and not overly bright, always trying to spell team with an “I.”
Of course, I did not write any of that, because it would have put me afoul of the office politics. Better, for me, a story that told the readers everything they already knew about OJ or could have known.
Orenthal James Simpson was a guy whom everybody wanted to do well. The media — we sports reporters — wanted it. Inadvertently, complacently, we helped fashion an image many of us knew to be false. Thanks to a lot of fools like me, Simpson became the prototype role model. He must have thought the press always would be on his side.
I can’t help thinking that if reporters had depicted Simpson more objectively and honestly, his subsequent behavior – the assaults on his wife – might never have begun.
I had to ask myself why sports reporters prior to the OJ case shied away from writing about NFL players being involved in domestic violence. We knew it was happening. But unless a player actually went to prison for beating up his wife or girlfriend, we usually avoided this issue. We knew that if we got one insignificant detail wrong, we’d get a call from an attorney threatening libel; we’d surely be severely reprimanded by an editor. We could even be fired.
So we did the easy thing. We did not force Simpson to confront his behavioral issues. So he assumed he could get away with murder, even double-murder.
Or so the preponderance of evidence indicated.
When the actual trial was dragging on, in 1995, I was covering the Astros beat for the Houston Chronicle. The Trial, televised for what seemed like endless hours, was discussed everywhere, including baseball clubhouses.
On the team bus I heard All-Star right fielder Kevin Bass, who is African-American, proclaiming that “OJ is being framed.”
Meanwhile, though in softer tones, the white players on the team expressed equal certainty that Simpson was guilty.
What struck me most about the TV series was how undated it seemed, how relevant the 20-year-old story is today. White Cops v. Black Suspects. Déjà vu. Again and again.
Evidence constantly getting compromised by an underpaid, undereducated police force. My father, Al Truex, who practiced some criminal law in Texas in the 1960s, said a good lawyer can get most defendants off because “too many cops can’t resist gilding the lily. Even if they have plenty of evidence to convict, they try to embellish what they have. And once you catch them in just one lie, their testimony loses all credibility with the jury.”
The Simpson trial brought the country’s racial issues into focus in a way we hadn’t seen before. Isn’t this where the phrase “playing the race card” entered the lexicon?
At the time, it seemed absurd to me that this new invention – oh, call it Reality TV — was being born and that tens of millions could not turn away from it. Everybody was acting like this blundering murder trial of a retired football player was the most significant news in America.
Looking back, and thanks to FX, I now see that indeed it was.