I've had occasion to be around celebrities from time to time. I've always thought of them as normal people, really no better than myself. And, I've been a jaded New Yorker as well. And a bit shy. For all those reasons, I give celebrities their space. I might nod or say hello. I might shake their hand if appropriate under the circumstances, but otherwise leave the gawking and genuflecting to others.
I remember walking across Manhattan's Central Park South late one afternoon and encountering a crowd of people surrounding Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali! He literally towered over the group, but being about the same height, somehow he and I made eye contact. I smiled a bit and nodded hello. Ali, already smiling, nodded back at me then returned to his audience. I kept walking, reveling in my silent communication with "The Champ!" On another occasion, a friend and I walked out of a restaurant at the South Street Seaport, and who was right there in front of us, coming our way, but Muhammad Ali. This time, I reached out my hand and shook his, babbling something about how much I admired him. A crowd gathered, and my friend and I left him to his many admirers.
It never dawned on me to ask for an autograph. It's just not my style. In fact, I've only requested one autograph in my life. That was from O.J. Simpson. It was in Newark, N.J., right down the street from the house I grew up in. O.J. was the "invited guest" for that year's Soap Box Derby. Everyone was getting his autograph so I figured I should too. I remember feeling awkward because I didn't even have anything for him to sign, but he signed a roll of white medical tape, tore off the piece and handed it to me. He signed it, simply, "O.J." I took the tape home and affixed it to the front of my favorite album, Sly Stone's Stand . Eventually I lost the album and the autograph, but it was of little consequence. Autographs and the celebrities behind them just don't matter that much to me. Eventually, though, I replaced the album.
O.J. wasn't that important to me anyway. He was a Buffalo Bill and I was a Jet fan. If pressed, I would have been willing to admit he was a great running back, but my favorites were Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer. I hated the Bills and, by extension, O.J., because they always seemed to be beating my team. And my team was very important to me.
After he finished playing professional football, O.J. went on to become an actor, but I can't recall ever seeing one of his movies. Sure, I did see him run and jump his way through airports, but it never made me rent a car from Hertz. O.J. was a professional celebrity and I didn't need any, didn't particularly value that. Don't know why really, but that's the way it was. And is.
I also was not aware that O.J. Simpson was married to either of his two wives, or that he had children, or much anything else about him. He was just another invisible brother, of little or no consequence to me. I assigned him no particular moral authority, didn't know anything about cocaine use or womanizing or wife beating. I didn't have him on a pedestal. I didn't have him anywhere in my consciousness. If asked, I would have said O.J. was one of the greatest running backs of all time, that he did commercials and movies. But that's just information.
Consequently, I had no strong emotional reaction when I first heard that O.J.'s wife had been murdered. I had no real reaction to him becoming a suspect. When I learned of it, I was more than a little amused at his "low speed chase" along the highways of Southern California. I mean, who the hell ever heard of a low speed chase? Frankly, my strongest emotional reaction to any of these events occurred when the screwy NBC affiliate in San Francisco decided to stay with the chase rather than return to the NBA playoff game featuring my beloved New York Knicks. O.J. was on all the other channels. Why couldn't they just show the goddamn game?
I Feel For You, But I Can't Reach YouSimilarly, O.J.'s arrest had little impact on me. Over the intervening months of hearings and trial proceedings, I have not watched more than a minute or two of the court proceedings at a time. I've not kept up-to-date with the evidence offered. Until I spent a day at home attending to my "not-feeling-too-good" wife, I had paid no attention to the courtroom abilities of the lawyers. To the speculations about the jury. To Judge Lance Ito.
I've also not talked about O.J.'s guilt or innocence. When asked my opinion, I've responded "I could care less," sometimes to be criticized for not caring about the victims, Nicole and Ron. That wasn't my point at all, of course. Certainly, I feel bad for them and their families. No one should be murdered. But in this case, I'm reminded of a criminal law professor I had during my brief bout with law school over twenty years ago. He'd sometimes say, "I feel for you, but I can't reach you." I really didn't know what he meant by that at the time, but I do now. How I feel will do nothing to bring Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman back to life. My opinion is irrelevant as regards O.J. Simpson's guilt or innocence.
In fact, your opinion is irrelevant too! My attitude has been that, in this case as in all others, I would like to see justice done. Justice! Whoever perpetrated this heinous crime should be brought before a judge and jury. Evidence should be presented for the benefit of the jury's deliberations. Due process should be rigorously observed. The defendant should receive a fair trial. And the jury, with proper instruction from the judge, should find the defendant or defendants guilty or innocent based on the evidence presented to them. And the judge should sentence the guilty to appropriate punishment consistent with applicable law. Whoever the defendant is. If O.J. did it, if he's found guilty, then he should pay the price. Period.
What I think or what you think should be absolutely, completely, one hundred percent irrelevant unless, of course, we happen to be members of the jury empaneled to decide the case. I've stuck by my guns and still feel that way. I still won't discuss O.J.'s guilt or innocence. I just don't care about that. I'm willing to abide by the results of the trial.
So, Why Now?In the essays I've written for Meanderings, I've assiduously avoided all mention of O.J. Until now. It turns out I've been living in a fog. Better, my idealistic wishes have little to do with the reality of this trial. If the jury is supposed to decide O.J.'s fate, for example, why does the prosecutor routinely hold press conferences to explain O.J.'s guilt to people like you and me who are not part of the jury? What do we have to say on this matter that makes such communications necessary or desirable?
Well, there are actually at least two separate and distinct courts. One is presided over by Judge Ito. The other is the court of public opinion. That latter court is not really swayed by the evidence, so much as by the glitz of it all. And we need to be convinced of things, yes we do, perhaps on the off chance we'll find ourselves in O.J.'s shoes someday, in the need of a good attorney. Or maybe we'll help decide who the next District Attorney is. Or, in California, get to vote on a constitutional amendment to the State Constitution eliminating the requirement for unanimous guilty verdicts in criminal trials. Not to mention buy a few products advertised on the "O.J.-of-the-Minute" show, or participate in the latest 900-number O.J. Poll (that's just 95 cents a minute, folks!).
So the prosecution tries to convince us and the defense does too. Not to mention the countless legal eagles trotted out by the many news and pseudo-news programs on television and radio. Everybody's on the make, selling themselves by telling us what to think about O.J.
By way of example, consider the first day or so after the heinous bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. For awhile, with no evidence, it seemed to be the work of Middle-Eastern terrorists. Well, for that same short while, we began hearing from the usual suspects, the experts on Middle Eastern terrorism. You could almost hear them say, quietly, smugly and with conviction, "We're back!" That was all premature though, so the foreign terror experts exited stage left and we now have different experts to deal with. Just as in Oklahoma City, we've got a bumper crop of O.J. experts too, all seeking to convince the jury of public opinion.
There have also been reports of other kinds of experts. Wardrobe and style experts to assist prosecutor Marcia Clarke's efforts to soften her appearance. In a case like this, appearance may count as much as evidence. There have reportedly been jury selection experts working with each side of this contest, hoping to get just that right mix of racial, ethnic and sexual balance to carry the day for the home (or visiting) team. With the need for outside experts and the need to keep up appearances, will we soon have talking heads performing for the jury. Are there enough talking heads to go around? I hear Connie Chung might be available.
Very Special CircumstancesOne of the more disturbing aspects of the out-of-courtroom proceedings was the report of the prosecution using mock juries or focus groups to help determine whether to charge O.J. with "special circumstances." To explain briefly, two people have been viciously murdered. It appears to be a clear case of premeditated murder. California is a death penalty state, and if any crime cries out for the death penalty, it is this crime. Especially with the combustible mix of a black murder suspect and white victims. But O.J. is a big star, very popular, and it is entirely possible some jurors will not believe the State's largely circumstantial case. The prosecution has to decide whether they can get a conviction, and they have to decide whether getting a conviction is made easier or more difficult by charging O.J. with "special circumstances" and, thereby, making him eligible for capital punishment. To help decide this very important matter, the prosecutors hired experts and brought in a "mock jury." And the answer was, no special circumstances.
Now, I'm opposed to the death penalty. For anyone. For any reason. It's almost a religious matter, it's a moral matter, and there is no point discussing it with me. Nothing you can say will change my mind. But if you have a death penalty as California does, how can you justify not seeking it for a case like this? Why should celebrity matter? How can this be justice? The implication is poor, indigent defendants are much more likely to die at the hands of the State than well-heeled, rich celebrities. See, status and class do matter.
To Hell With Justice? . . . Just Win Baby!It is difficult to see who among the players in this game are interested in justice. It appears, from the courting of public opinion to the efforts "spin" the courtroom happenings on the nightly news, that both the defense and prosecution are interested, primarily, in winning. This is a contest and both sides want to win, no matter what. So a little shading of the evidence doesn't matter. And, since someone is going to lose no matter what, or at least be perceived as losing, both sides want the court of public opinion to look beyond the verdict and see them, the lawyers and experts, as winners anyway. They've got to think about their future careers, you know.
To some extent, I don't really care about the efforts of the defense team to court our opinions. They have the right to free speech, and spin control in that regard is fine with me. I can always just tune it out. But I have a huge problem, however, with the State, with the People, engaging in such efforts. It's not a matter of my tax money either. I just don't think it is right. I don't think the People should be trying to win at all costs. The People should want justice to prevail. Justice! Even if that means the defendant walks away. Yeah, I know, naive idealism again.
Last summer, Bob Herbert wrote a series of columns in the New York Times about a case very different from the one we've been discussing. In this case, the defendant in a Brooklyn, N.Y., trial was convicted and imprisoned even though the prosecution had evidence that the defendant could not have committed the crime. The prosecution sought and won a conviction on a man they knew to be totally innocent of the charges. After the defendant had spent several years in jail, a judge finally threw out the conviction. But that wasn't the end of the story, because, Herbert reported, the Brooklyn prosecutors were at the time seeking a retrial, again despite their knowledge that the man was innocent.
The Brooklyn case, as with O.J., was pursued by the prosecution, for reasons having little to do with actual justice. The reality is, to succeed in the court of public opinion where campaign funds need to be raised, elections won, careers enhanced, the prosecution (and, to some extent, the defense), simply need to win.
That's the reality. I happen not to like it. I happen to think it is totally wrong. I think it subverts our judicial and political system.
Selling SoapWhat does it mean that the People must resort to the tools of capitalism, marketing, image-making, and focus groups, to achieve a just verdict? Both sides have the same mission -- convince a jury that doesn't want to be convinced. With circumstantial evidence, no weapon, and no witnesses, facts won't provide much value. In the end, both sides seem to be convinced that evidence won't win the day, that image will be supremely important. The jury must be convinced to buy what it doesn't want and may not even need. How do you do that?
Cornel West and bell hooks, among others, have written about the rampant consumerism in America, particularly the impact on poor and black folks. The reality is our entire society is based on making the sale, with the art of the deal elevated above other concerns, including basic morality. The O.J. Simpson trial is proof that concepts like justice and truth have taken a back seat to other values. In fact, justice and truth are useful only in achieving other value. Measured in dollars of course.
It's not enough that the jury must be sold O.J.'s guilt in the same manner they would be sold a new dish detergent. After consideration of some new piece of evidence, the media discussion of the case frequently revolves around whether the evidence was interesting enough to hold their attention during the lengthy proceedings. Is it simple enough to understand? Is it boring? I'm always forced to wonder whether it is the media that is bored or unable to comprehend the evidence. But that's not it at all.
In a sense, we are all being sold something called the O.J. Simpson Trial. Like it or not, the entire media, save for a few days consideration of terrorists traipsing about in Oklahoma, is focused on O.J. We have a report on every news broadcast other than McNeil-Lehrer. But that's the news. We also have Hard Copy and A Current Affair. We have the network and cable news magazines. The talk shows. All selling us on one aspect or another of this case on a daily basis. They may be preoccupied with whether we're bored because, if per chance we are, they'll need to develop some new material. I wonder how much the trial is costing L.A. County and whether they might charge the media for all of this free programming they're providing. Hell, O.J. should be paid too! Can you imagine how boring TV would be without O.J.?
Life is Just a GameI started this piece by discussing celebrity, including my brief encounters with O.J. and Muhammad Ali. Elsewhere in this issue, you will read Bill Benzon's discussion of excellence, focusing on O.J.'s on-the-field performance and where that places him among the pantheon of great NFL running backs. Clearly, O.J. was one of the best of all time. Muhammad Ali was, in my opinion, the greatest of all time at his position too. In that sense, O.J. and Ali were on the same level. Both had incredible stamina, speed, agility. Both were disciplined, knew how to concentrate and could bring creativity to bear on their situation. They knew the rules and were able to execute within them, but also had the ability to improvise when necessary, whether turning on a dime to avoid a tackle or using the rope-a-dope to tire a stronger, younger opponent.
O.J. and Ali both had excellent performance over the course of lengthy careers. Able to take a beating and come back again and again is part of what made them great performers. Muhammad excelled at handling the media of course, and probably invented the hype that threatens to run amok today. Originally he hyped himself ("I am the greatest!") and his fights (e.g., calling the round of his knockouts). It was fun at that time because it seemed so unusual. No one else did that and he could back up the boastful talk. Today, everything is hyped, and especially the O.J. matter. While Simpson could always give the basic athlete's "I'm going to give it 110 percent and with God's will, we will win" speech, his post-football days as an actor and celebrity demonstrated a certain ability to handle the media too.
I've mentioned that Simpson played for the wrong team so I wasn't a great fan. But Muhammad once played for the wrong team too, at least in my perceptions at the time. As a know-nothing kid, I rooted for the Christian Floyd Patterson to defeat Cassius Clay turned Black Muslim Muhammad Ali and save the heavyweight title for Christianity. Which is all to say I had my reasons to dislike both of them.
Nevertheless, while Simpson has always remained somewhere out there on the periphery of my consciousness, stuck between irrelevancy and "So what," Muhammad Ali became and remains central to me. The reasons for this dichotomy are clear enough. O.J. was a great player and used his greatness to create for himself a version of the good life. He's not alone in that regard. Muhammad Ali stood for something that was very unpopular at the time and paid a dear price for his convictions. In standing for something noble and in sacrificing his boxing career to do so, he achieved greatness. He also helped others to stand up, and his ordeal was made sweeter by the athletic excellence he demonstrated when finally permitted to practice his craft again. And he did it without bitterness or malice. Has O.J. ever done anything like that? Not to my knowledge. Not even close.
Values! Values! Values!We talk about participation in sports as if that will provide values and training that can last a lifetime. Children should participate because it provides not only fitness, but lessons in discipline, concentration, teamwork, etc. These are things we consider useful on the field and in the business world as well. However, given the less-than-admirable qualities of many of our professional sports stars, the athletic field is no guarantee that positive values will be transmitted. It is equally possible for our young to go for the money, to go for the cheap shot, to go for the fleeting chances of professional sport riches rather than the more certain but less flashy path that education provides. It's not that we don't have excellent professional athlete role models. Rather, it is the fact that athletics, and the celebrity which attends it, is no panacea. O.J. is living proof of that. Having been a young man myself and having helped raise a soon-to-be 21 year old son, I understand the value of participation in team sports. In high school, he was a standout football player (though not quite as good as O.J.!), helping his team win its first league championship in a dozen years. Colleges came a-courting, and he had some important decisions to make. In the end, his choice was one that reflected the values we hoped he would have, selecting an excellent small college with strong academic credentials and a Division III football program over schools which would treat football as a full-time job. That choice wasn't a guarantee for success, however, and he is nearing the completion of a one year "break" from school, working, taking courses and anticipating a return to his college in September. He'll just have to work at it like everyone else. Given his more serious orientation, he may have already played his last football. As a fan, as his number one fan, I'll regret that because I really enjoyed watching him play. But I once made a similar choice myself, and I marvel at the maturity he now shows. Life is about making such choices.
I can't say whether he'll end up like Ali or Simpson. There is too much time to go, too many things to happen before his contribution to society is fully known. But I can already say with some certainty that his road is likely to lead away from the flash and dash that has consumed O.J. and toward the substance, the humanity, the strength that is Muhammad Ali. Or Colin Powell. Or any number of black men of substance.
Or maybe even Malcolm . . .