Posted on June 27, 1994 in Washington Watch

Without a note of irony, a headline in the popular American daily newspaper USA Today best expressed the perverse tragedy underlying the entire O.J. Simpson affair.

The headline, on the front page of the business section, read “O.J. needs ‘miracle’ to save ad career.” The article itself quoted the executive of a sports promotion firm who said, “Barring a miracle of facts … he has lost any value to any corporation, advertising medium or even charity.”

The tragedy, of course, is that the executive was serious. What, in fact, was of consuming interest to the media from the grotesque murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman on last Thursday night through the arrest of O.J. Simpson last Sunday night was not the personal destruction of human life, but the demise of a symbol—a valuable and immensely wealthy symbol.

It was a symbol that had been carefully crafted, with a great deal of effort invested in its creation. In time, it was a symbol that had become a commodity, a real money-maker. It could sell cars, books, sports equipment, lifestyles, etc. It could make money for its creators—and that was its value.

Everyone in the media business knew that O.J. Simpson had been convicted of beating his wife—and yet that fact was largely ignored. Was it, therefore, irony, ignorance or naiveté that led the Washington Post to note the day of Simpson’s arrest that over the years almost no mention was made in the media of Simpson’s violence?

Of course, there would be no mention made of such discomforting facts—they would only serve to destroy the symbol/commodity that the media was too busy creating (and, it might be added, had invested too much in creating).

So despite the remorseful comments of the media as they, and the rest of America, followed O.J. Simpson’s car on its long, agonizing journey home, it was not the demise of O.J. Simpson, the person, they were lamenting (nor was it Nicole Brown Simpson or Ronald Goldman who drew their concern or compassion), rather it was the collapse of an multimillion dollar industry/symbol.

And in this tragic enterprise, O.J. Simpson is not alone. He is but one example of a disturbing trend in the sports industry of America. Dozens of U.S. sports figures-become-celebrities have fallen from grace or collapsed under the weight of personal problems in recent years. Michael Jordan (Basketball), Mike Tyson (boxing), Pete Rose (baseball) and Tonya Harding (ice skating) are but a few examples of sports heroes whose personal lives and problems were ignored by those who built them, invested in them, and exploited them in order to make huge profits.

Sports in the United States is no longer a game—it is a major industry. Players now sign contracts for 10 years at $80 million. Teams now sell for $300 million. And owners of teams can make tens of millions of dollars in profits each year.

The players, themselves, are no longer merely athletes. They become commodities—whose images are developed into hero-like proportions so they in turn can be used to sell other products to an admiring public.

It is not enough to appreciate the athletic ability of Michael Jordan. The goal of the image makers is to make you want to dress like Michael Jordan, use what he uses, eat what he eats—or as the song that was written about this “hero” says “I want to be, I want to be, I want to be like Mike”.

And only hundreds of millions of dollars in sales later did the public discover that Michael was a lonely, compulsive gambler. He needed help—but never got it. Instead he was asked simply to retire from basketball until the scandal was forgotten.

The same scenario played itself out with O.J. Simpson’s violence. After his arrest for domestic violence a few years ago, he was neither punished nor helped. In fact, his celebrity status shielded him from help – his problems remained and festered.

All of these sports heroes share a similar background. They were all too young for the sudden fame that surrounded them, and they all became too rich too quickly. From an early age they were courted by the industry, one might say “captured”, and exploited—not only for their skills, but for their potential to become commodities.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson who, a few years ago, embarked on a personal crusade to reach out to help several of these young athletes, told of what their lives were like. He went one day to meet a young professional football “hero”. The athlete had just won a championship and was soon to be worth millions.

To meet him then, Jackson had to contact a coach, who put him in touch with the team’s business agent, who then connected the Reverend with the player’s personal agent. He found the athlete living alone on the 21st floor of an expensive apartment building, surrounded by handlers and agents—all of whom wanted a piece of him (and his marketability).

It wasn’t until he looked into the young man’s eyes that Reverend Jackson saw the tragedy of the scene. He was a boy—a lonely 21 year old, just up from poverty, cut off from family and friends and surrounded by people who cared not for him as a person but for his potential as an investment. He was, as Reverend described the situation, “a disaster waiting to happen.”

And as we have seen, in too many instances, these disasters do happen. Young men and women, too young to handle sudden celebrity and wealth, too young to handle being cut off from connections with those who care for them, too young and, in many cases too troubled to be elevated to the status of hero.

This was the tragedy of O.J. Simpson. Not only were Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman victims—O.J., too was a victim. So, in the end we had the pathetic scene of this lonely, broken man, with a gun pointed at his head, accompanied by his high school friend, driving home to see his mother.

As if to complete the tragic picture, thousands of fans stopped their cars to wave, to cheer him on, some carrying signs saying “We love you O.J.”, “Go, O.J.”—as if he was running for one last touchdown. They, too, were still victims of the industry that had created an unreal symbol of a hero out of a broken, incomplete person. They were still seeing the created image, while the occupant was in fact the real O.J.: a troubled man who needed help and never got it.

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