I’ve watched the first two installments of ESPN’s five part series. As everyone seems to agree, it’s very well done. And, of course, we’re just getting going. The end of part 2 brings us to the eve of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
I haven’t had a chance to read any reviews/criticisms yet. But here are a few thoughts, not in order of significance:
1) OJ was a spectacular running back. Like Dickerson, he looked too big to run as effortlessly fast as he did. College defenses were no match for him during his two years at USC. Unlike some of the other great running backs, though, it took OJ a few years to hit his stride in the NFL. Payton, Dickerson, Brown, Dorsett, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders were all far better in their first three years than OJ was. Indeed, all of the above backs were great by year two (and most in their first year). OJ didn’t have his first good season until his 4th year in the NFL, 1972.
His five year peak spanned ages 25-29. That’s the typical prime of an athlete. Those are more or less exactly the years Ali gave up because he refused to serve in the United States Armed Forces during the Vietnam war. OJ averaged over 1500 yards a season, and over five yards per carry during those years (and that was when the 14-game schedule was still in effect). The 2000 yard season in 1973, including a mind boggling 6 yard per carry average, all accomplished in 14 games, stands as one of the very greatest seasons by any player at any position in the history of the sport. In his final great season, 1976, he rushed for over 1500 yards. In 1977 he got hurt and was never the same again. He quit in 1979.
He never played on a very good teams. Only once did in his eleven seasons did he make the playoffs. He played in precisely one postseason game, rushed for 49 yards against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, when the Bills got drubbed.
In some ways, OJ is overrated. His career stats do not match up with other all-time greats, including the group listed above. But his peak was akin to Mickey Mantle’s – an incredible athlete who, when healthy and in his prime, was as good as anyone.
2) A central focus of the documentary is race. In particular, the film focuses on the racial tensions that defined Los Angeles from the time of the Watts riots in 1965 to the violence and mayhem that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. While other noted black athletes spoke out about the racial ills of American society, OJ was resolute in his refusal to do so. Indeed, what’s striking is the degree to that what made OJ controversial in racial terms was his resolute commitment to never, ever take a controversial stance on any issue. He was asked to do so repeatedly, and he repeatedly demurred. The film argues that OJ was the first black athlete to be a major commercial pitch man (even before the legendary Hertz commercials). And he was bound and determined to do nothing to jeopardize that status.
A number of interviewees in the film, from journalists to childhood friends recounted how important it was for OJ that he not be viewed as black. He wanted to blend in, to be accepted and approved by white society and, specifically, by upper crust white society. One thing I found frustrating about the first two parts of the series – it never provided real insight into why OJ saw himself in these terms. Perhaps there’s no way to know. But given how much the film dwelt on OJ’s (anti) racial identity, it was aggravating not to learn more about where that might have come from.
Oh, and by the way, unarmed black Americans have been getting shot and killed for a *long* time by people – cops and others – who don’t end up serving any jail time.
3) My god, is there something seriously wrong with our domestic violence laws. No, I don’t have well-thought out answers to the question – what should be done? But OJ physically abused and otherwise terrorized Nicole Brown Simpson for years. The police calls the documentary plays are chilling, depressing and infuriating. OJ was a sick and violent man who repeatedly dodged real punishment for what he did to Nicole, not counting the murder itself. That’s hard to watch.