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O.J.:Made In America

O.J. was the lesser of two evils

‘I was rooting much more against the LAPD than for Simpson.’

I wish I could remember the stadium. Thirty years later, all I can recall about the venue is that we sportswriters were gathered in the usual Sunday late-afternoon scrum down in what amounted to the basement waiting for the locker room to open. It could have been Cincinnati … or Pittsburgh. I was brand-spanking new to covering the NFL for The Washington Post, probably in my sixth or seventh week on the beat, as assigned by my sports editor, the now legendary George Solomon.

One of Solomon’s many instructions before throwing me into this huge assignment at 27 years old was to, when the opportunity presented itself, introduce myself to O.J. Simpson. The then godlike figure was working for NBC. We’d be in the same places, George promised. Simpson, whom he had gotten to know years earlier while covering the old American Football League in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, would be a nice resource to have. Since Simpson, at the time, was on the short list of coolest men on the planet and Solomon was, well, not exactly that, there was zero chance I was going to walk up to Simpson and say, “George Solomon told me to introduce myself.”

So, even though I’d been close enough in proximity to, I didn’t. While waiting for the locker room to open to the press, I heard a voice from behind me say, “Hey, are you the kid from The Washington Post who works for George Solomon?”

I didn’t need to turn around to know who was asking. I’d been watching Simpson since I was 9 years old, during his Heisman Trophy winning season at University of Southern California. I’d followed his entire professional career. I’d seen the Hertz and Ford commercials, watched his transition to broadcast booth. His voice was nearly as identifiable as his face. And here he was, sounding slightly annoyed, asking, “Why didn’t you come and introduce yourself?”

So I stepped away from the scrum and listened as Simpson asked me what games I was covering the next week or two, and suggesting he was available if I wanted to sit and talk about football or whatever. He was so casual. I stopped freaking out and told him I’d love to talk whenever possible, not really knowing if he meant it or if he was just being nice as a favor to my boss.

It couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks later when, in some press box somewhere in America, Simpson said, “Have you met Tex Schramm?,” the then iconic boss of the Dallas Cowboys. I told him I had not. The next thing I knew, I was being introduced to Schramm who treated me – neophyte that I was – like a media big boy.

O.J. Simpson reports for NBC during a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills won the game, 23-9.

O.J. Simpson reports for NBC during a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills won the game, 23-9.

Rick Stewart/Allsport

Another week: “Wilbon, do you know Art Modell? Listen, if you’re going to cover this league you need to know him. Art, this is … ”

And so it went. Owners, club executives, league executives, most of whom I had never met and who wouldn’t have given me the time of day, except that I was brought to them by Simpson for an introduction. A scout who used to be a former teammate, a TV analyst he’d run past for a touchdown once-upon-a-time. Pregame, postgame, in a hotel lobby here or there.

In 35 years of covering sports and intersecting with some of the most famous men and women on the planet, nobody has been any better company, more engaging, a better storyteller or more accommodating than Simpson. The O.J. that Ezra Edelman so brilliantly captures early on in O.J.: Made in America.

I wouldn’t dare describe it as a friendship. I wasn’t on that level. But Simpson did allow for a certain connection. Maybe it was because my boss Solomon had done right by him in the late 1960s. Perhaps – though this conflicts with O.J.’s public proclamations about race – because I was one of only two or three black football writers in America at the time had something to do with it.

Whatever the case, it didn’t matter to me then that the conversations with Simpson were very, very different from the ones with Jim Brown, with Bobby Mitchell, with Gene Upshaw, with Walter Payton or Ozzie Newsome. The talks weren’t particularly deep and certainly didn’t reflect the pain that would often come pouring out of Brown or Mitchell, whose experiences a dozen years earlier had been so different from what Simpson recalled at both USC and in Buffalo, New York.

It’s all spellbinding, even now. The USC years, the almost instant acceptance by white America as one of the country’s earliest black pitchmen, his career with the Buffalo Bills. Simpson had to be perceived as one of the least threatening famous black men in America in the 1970s and well into the ’80s.

Made in America is the first detailed treatment of the grand, and still largely misunderstood transformation, from Simpson being a political and cultural nonentity in black America to what we used to call “a race man.”

One bizarre white Bronco chase through the highways and streets of southern California did that. I knew Simpson, I certainly owed him professionally. Yet I was rooting much more against the LAPD than for Simpson. The day after the chase, standing in Madison Square Garden during the NBA Finals, a dear and longtime friend of Simpson’s saw me moping around and said, “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?”

I shot back: “The same thing that’s wrong with you.” We were both aware of how difficult it was seeing someone you knew in such a predicament.

And Simpson’s friend answered with a smirk, “Yeah, but you look like you think he didn’t do it.”

It wasn’t like black folks, particularly of a certain age, didn’t know what and who Simpson was (or who he wasn’t). It’s just that we also knew what the Los Angeles Police Department was, who Marcia Clark was, who Mark Fuhrman was.

Los Angeles police check individuals in South Central LA during Rodney King trial.

Los Angeles police check individuals in South Central Los Angeles during Rodney King trial.

Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

Now, as then, white friends and colleagues reacted with horror when they perceived we were “rooting for O.J.”

Why are you rooting for him to escape the police?

Why are you cheering his acquittal when there was so much evidence against him?

Why? Because there has been overwhelming evidence against white murderers and rapists for 400 years. and when black victims got no justice, there was usually zero national outrage. To quote Malcolm X, perhaps the chickens had come home to roost. Turnabout brought some teeny-tiny measure of a sense of universal justice, if not justice in our legal system. For every O.J. Simpson (and there seemed to be only one) there were thousands of Byron De La Beckwiths littering American history, as if the evidence against him wasn’t overwhelming after he murdered Medgar Evers and nonetheless walked for three decades.

It wasn’t even lost on Simpson, whom we hear in Made In America saying that for the first time in his life, he was counting the number of black people in the room. How nice he joined real life, which for the rest of us was already in progress.

Discounting presidential election days, the only thing I can remember dividing the nation more than the Simpson verdict was the run up to Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing fight in 1971. And that had happened a quarter-century earlier.

What Made in America has done, in my case, is hardened my original positions. It has nothing to do with whether I believe Simpson committed the murders (I do). But the fact that Clark arrogantly presumed that she would connect with black female jurors – as if she was Oprah – only to find out the black female jurors hated her. The fact that she and Bill Hodgman are still essentially lamenting on camera that they were unable to rig an all-or mostly-white jury enables anybody who looks closely to see their true colors. Clark isn’t as loathsome as Fuhrman, who is nearly as dangerous now as he was then. He proclaims on camera “They found a flaw in me,” as if his racist policing was merely a flaw.

Black folks I know who actively disliked Simpson because of his declared “racelessness,” had little trouble choosing sides. Simpson versus the prosecution – which was both arrogant and, relative to the defense, incompetent – was a no-brainer. It’s even more fascinating now, more than 20 years later, than it was then.

I never saw Simpson after the murders, thankfully. I wouldn’t have had any idea what to say to him. One day my mother called me, when he was living in South Florida before his subsequent legal issues, and said, “I saw your buddy O.J. Simpson in the Publix in my neighborhood.”

I was overjoyed to not have been with her.

Michael Wilbon is one of the nation’s most respected sports journalists and an industry pioneer as one of the first sportswriters to broaden his career beyond newspapers to include television, radio and new media. He is a co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption.