That night, an epic battle between two of the best centers in National Basketball Association history — Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing — was interrupted when NBC shifted to live footage of retired football great O.J. Simpson fleeing the Los Angeles police in a white Ford Bronco driven by his friend Al Cowlings. Only about 8 million viewers watched NBC’s coverage of the game, but about 95 million tuned in across networks to see whether a distraught Simpson would surrender, clash with the police or kill himself.
The car chase, coming in the middle of the fifth game of the NBA Finals, cast a brief pall on what had been a watershed moment for black athletes. To suggest that Simpson overshadowed a decade’s worth of goodwill toward black athletes would be an overstatement. But Simpson, arguably a major source of this goodwill, certainly made clear the conditions white Americans put on their goodwill, 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. In 1964, heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, months removed from defeating Sonny Liston for the title, boldly renamed himself Muhammad Ali. Three years later, Ali would hold a summit with several of the nation’s most prominent black athletes — Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, retired NFL great and burgeoning actor Jim Brown, and UCLA’s star center Lew Alcindor among them — to garner support for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.
The meeting would serve as the first public instance in which the nation’s most prominent black athletes rallied for a common cause.
The conscientious objector summit would do little to endear Ali to a public that viewed him as a braggart and draft dodger. But it spurred others to action. In 1968, Alcindor, who had converted to Islam at UCLA and later would adopt the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, refused to play in the Olympics. His compatriots Tommie Smith and John Carlos did compete, and defiantly raised black-gloved fists after placing first and third in the 200-meter race.
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 1975, People magazine declared Simpson “the first black athlete to become a bona fide lovable media superstar.” In doing so, the magazine drew a sharp contrast with activists from the earlier era, disparaging Ali as a “clownish threat” and Brown as “Menace incarnate,” and noting that baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron “lacked the wit or personality to scale the media heights.” 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.
Simpson’s rousing success was an anomaly: His rising status did not lift up other black athletes in the 1970s and early 1980s. During that era, increased participation in the various leagues provided black athletes with greater visibility and a measure of acceptance. Yet other issues centered on black athletes — labor clashes in the MLB and drug abuse among NBA players, for example — marred their image. In the 1960s, the general perception of black athletes had been that they were too political; in the 1970s, it was that they were too selfish and flamboyant.
The 1980s, though, would prove to be a boon for black athletes willing to cultivate goodwill among white audiences. This growth was spurred by Michael Jordan, named ESPN’s Athlete of the Century and arguably the most transcendent athlete of the modern era. He, and others of his ilk, such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, became media darlings and wealthy spokesmen for Nike, Gatorade and a host of other brands. As the NBA fought to salvage its tarnished reputation, it positioned Jordan as a hard-working, naturally gifted and family-oriented athlete, while Nike and his other sponsors presented him as a man actually capable of flying.
Like Simpson before them, Jordan and other popular athletes of that era recognized that the path to greater earnings and fame involved being apolitical. Jordan, for example, notably resisted calls to endorse former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt’s campaign to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an outspoken opponent of civil rights. It’s not clear whether Jordan really said “Republicans wear sneakers, too” as a rationale for not supporting Gantt. But we do know that Jordan, like Simpson, was disinclined to fight overt battles against racism.
Simpson, the archetype for Jordan, was still relatively successful in the months before the Bronco chase. In January 1994, he served as a pregame analyst on NBC’s Super Bowl broadcast, garnering praise from sports media for his interview with Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett. He appeared in his recurring role as Officer Nordberg in the police procedural parody “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult,” which was released that March, and he starred in a pilot episode for the military action series “Frogmen.” He even partnered with singer Gloria Estefan and others to raise $30 million for spinal cord research at a Miami fundraiser.
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.
Over the years, the Bronco chase has been viewed as a galvanizing moment, as a third of the country tuned in to watch the tragedy unfold. That night, NBC concluded that O.J. Simpson’s fall from grace was important enough to disrupt an epic battle between two of the greatest NBA players of all time.
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.
Although Simpson’s Twitter video catapulted him back into the news this weekend and probably will turn him into fodder for late-night talk shows, it is unlikely to be resonant. His moment in the spotlight — both as a personality and pariah — has passed. 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). Twenty-five years ago, Simpson held enough cultural cachet that his travails drew the attention of millions; today, he is a novelty act.