With O.J. Simpson back in the news, a columnist for the Washington Post insisted that Simpson’s legal troubles somehow prove that white people’s support for black athletes is “conditional.”
In his editorial for the paper, Phillip Lamarr Cunningham spoke of the 25th anniversary of O.J.’s car chase which occurred right in the middle of the fifth game of the NBA finals on June 17, 1994.
O.J.’s flight from police was bad for black athletes, Cunningham said, because it “overshadowed a decade’s worth of goodwill toward black athletes.”
But, worse in Cunningham’s eyes, Simpson’s arrest for murder showed the conditions which white Americans attach with their affection for black athletes, because Simpson’s situation, “certainly made clear the conditions white Americans put on their goodwill [for black athletes], even as the nation’s greatest black athletes continued to thrill and amaze.
“After years of being criticized for their politics and demeanor, black athletes spent the 1980s gaining recognition primarily for their ability and affability,” Cunningham wrote noting that Simpson was a leading figure in changing the face of black athletes from images of Vietnam protesting and militant black power fists in the air to that of lovable Hertz Rent-a-Car salesmen.
After a brief note about the militant activism of many black athletes in the 60s and 70s, the writer pointed out that O.J. went in a different direction when he began to make the national scene.
Absent from these moments was Simpson, who had distanced himself from black athletic activism. When asked by Harry Edwards, a sociologist and one of the leading organizers of the black athletic revolt, to join in the effort, Simpson allegedly replied, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
Simpson’s response emerged from someone on the cusp of unprecedented sporting achievement and commercial power. The nation’s best college running back, Simpson was exceedingly popular, so much so that he began appearing in television and film between his senior year at the University of Southern California and his rookie year with the Buffalo Bills. As his football career flourished, so did his celebrity, leading to more acting roles and sponsorships. He became a successful pitchman for Chevrolet, RC Cola and, most famously, Hertz.
“In short, Simpson’s aversion to politics and ingratiation with white media allowed him to enter fully into a world that kept other black athletes on the periphery,” Cunningham added.
On the heels of Simpson’s more affable stardom came Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan who also eschewed politics. “Like Simpson before them, Jordan and other popular athletes of that era recognized that the path to greater earnings and fame involved being apolitical,” Cunningham wrote.
But then came Simpson’s murder case, which made whites come to grips with the conflict between their image of Simpson, and his reality:
The Bronco chase forced Americans not only to wrestle with the increasing likelihood of Simpson’s guilt but also to recognize that perhaps he was not who they thought he was. He was not the smiling pitchman running through airports or the frequent victim of comedic violence in “Naked Gun.” He was O.J., and he was black — or at least that was the message Time magazine sent when it darkened his post-chase mug shot on the cover of its June 27, 1994, edition.
O.J.’s slow-motion escape from police revealed that white people only support blacks when they are smiling pitchmen, according to Cunningham.
The chase not only disrupted the NBA Finals — it also unsettled the comfort white Americans had developed for black athletes. For years, black athletes, and Simpson in particular, were held up as signs of the progress made toward bridging America’s racial divide. That night, however, he served as a stark reminder of how conditional that comfort was.
Cunningham leaves Simpson’s guilt or innocence unmentioned. But ultimately, Cunningham does not seem to care about Simpson, personally. Even Cunningham takes a swipe at O.J. in his conclusion.
“The means by which Simpson won over America are antiquated, especially in an era in which black athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James not only have embraced social justice but also have convinced their leagues and sponsors to do so as well (to an extent),” Cunningham concluded. “Twenty-five years ago, Simpson held enough cultural cachet that his travails drew the attention of millions; today, he is a novelty act.”
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.