Jim O'Donnell: O.J. should have sat out the final two quarters of his shattered, battering life

O.J. SIMPSON CAME TO NATIONAL CELEBRITY during a reset decade in which America thought disco had legs and Black and White could finally forever live on in harmony.

He died Thursday at age 76, a hollow relic who got three decades of life denied to ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Buffalo Grove native Ron Goldman.

The media — sports and otherwise — remained as challenged as ever in attempting to reconcile his fame in its vastly different dimensions.

“O. J. 1.0” was easy — football superstar, pioneering Black advertising pitchman and Hollywood star of comically constricted acting range.

(As the mythic Gary Deeb once wrote, “If ABC could hand O.J. a role in the original 'Roots,' there will seem to be a future in films for just about anybody.”)

“O. J. 2.0” was far more up slope — convicted felon, accused double murderer and a celluloid zero. Even if the glove doesn't fit, lose “The Juice.”

The dividing point was the bloody night of Sunday, June 12, 1994.

TO HIS EARTHLY END, Simpson could polarize and baffle. No less than both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times had to revise obituaries because of content deemed insensitive or outright incorrect.

Ashley Allison — a CNN contributor and former Obama aide — outraged some viewers Thursday when she said:

“He wasn't a social justice leader. But he represented something for the Black community in that moment, in that trial, particularly because there were two White people who had been killed and the history around how Black people had been persecuted during slavery.”

Her harsh history underscored that Simpson never really stood trial for the murders of his former wife and her friend.

Instead, through clever lawyering, the ways and habitual mean spirit of the Los Angeles Police Department were put under an 11-month microscope.

The LAPD and its culture lost. O.J. walked. He then focused on constructing his own purgatory — as much as possible with respites off of the blue tees.

THAT HE ACHIEVED NATIONAL ICON STATUS in the years 1967-94 can't be denied. But at what price glory?

His path to Hertz Corp. was a glide across a sea of Mad Men. He first achieved national renown as a junior at USC when a breathtaking 64-yard touchdown run vs. No. 1 UCLA gave the Trojans a 21-20 victory in front of the eyes of Chris Schenkel, Bud Wilkinson and an ABC audience.

Three years of apprentice anonymity in Buffalo followed. But after the arrival of the prickly Lou Saban in 1973, things changed.

The Bills were the last of the merged 26 NFL teams to appear on “Monday Night Football.” That came on Oct. 29, 1973 — the fourth year of “MNF.” Simpson starred in a 23-14 win over the Chiefs and Howard Cosell told America, “O.J. Simpson is the most powerful force in football.”

HE FINISHED THE '73 SEASON with an eye-popping 2,003 yards rushing in a 14-game schedule. The new NFL record reminded America who he was. His celebrity got a further boost in 1975 when he won the third edition of “The Superstars” on ABC. That was a mixed-sports exhibition competition of classic Roone Arledge manufacture.

Pole vaulter Bob Seagren won the inaugural. Soccer superstar Kyle Rote Jr. prevailed in 1974 (and repeated in 1976 and 1977).

In the same month Simpson was winning, Hertz chairman Frank Olson — like O.J., a San Francisco native — was formulating a new campaign with ad agency Ted Bates to beat back pesky No. 2 Avis.

Research by staff at Bates revealed that the No. 1 desire of Hertz customers — predominantly White businessmen — was to get into rental cars and out of airport lots as quickly as possible.

Bates proposed a campaign called “Joe Average” with a stock actor to be named later racing through airports. Olson wanted celebrity topspin and he wanted Simpson. It was a remarkable decision in its time for a conservative, dominant corporation to roll the advertising bones on a Black jock as endorser.

THE ASSOCIATION CLICKED big time. Arnold Palmer was later added as Simpson's spiel mate. Even alluring young Jamie Lee Curtis came aboard to complete the unlikely rent-and-dash Mod Squad.

Simpson's relationship with Hertz was still in effect almost 20 years later, on the night Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered.

So too was his seasonal studio co-host role alongside Bob Costas on NBC's “NFL Live!”

A question that has lingered in the Simpson downfall stems from the “no contest” plea he entered to a spousal battery charge that followed an incident with his battered wife at his Brentwood mansion on Jan. 1, 1989. It was at least the ninth domestic call to the residence.

The assault and its aftermath received some media attention, especially in southern California.

Hertz's Olson and NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol were aware of the matter. Nicole Brown Simpson, according to the Washington Post, later called Olson to successfully downplay it and lobby for O.J.'s retention as the face of Hertz.

Her plea worked. Had Hertz and NBC Sports investigated and taken constructive measures with Simpson at that point in time, would his former wife and Mr. Goldman have been slaughtered five years later?

THERE WAS A LONG AGO weekday afternoon in Chicago at the Sports office of WLS-Channel 7. It was 1985. Simpson was in town to promote his analyst role — next to Joe Namath and play-by-play voice Frank Gifford — on the upcoming season of “Monday Night Football.”

In a corner, Simpson sat awaiting his live shot on the early news. His impromptu court consisted of old chum Mike Adamle, Tim Weigel and a handful of kibitzers, including a weekly sports media columnist from the Daily Herald.

He was charming and played “real” very well — totally a guy's guy almost too pretty for words.

Adamle kidded him, “If I had your size and speed, I would have gained 3,000 yards behind that offensive line you had back in '73.”

Simpson laughed and replied: “I bet you would have. They did all the work.”

The unfathomable tragedies and disgrace to come were so far off.

But after all, it was still the easy part — “O.J. 1.0.”

Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Wednesday. Reach him at All communications may be considered for publication.

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