20 years later, O.J. Simpson is still a big story

illustration of oj simpson

Why is O.J. Simpson everywhere right now?

It is obvious why the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson for the grizzly murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman was dubbed the “Trial of the Century.” Professional athlete and movie star kills his estranged wife and her friend in the affluent neighborhood of Brentwood, California, is a story that will surely captivate audiences.

Throw in the fact that Simpson is black and his wife and her friend were white, and this story is ripe to be divided along racial divisions. Los Angeles had just recovered from the Rodney King beating, the acquittals of all officers involved, and the subsequent riots that engulfed the city.

As 68-year-old Orenthal James Simpson, or inmate #1027820, serves a 33-year prison sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada, his life story has again risen to national prominence.

American television had just started its fixation with court shows and legal dramas—the Court TV channel launched in 1991 and Law & Order launched in 1990.

This year, the FX Network has released The People vs. O.J. Simpson, an 11-episode American Crime Story series, which has garnered rave reviews, that covers the ins and outs of his culturally divisive trial.

The ninth season of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is even attempting to unofficially re-litigate Simpson’s murder trial via the gossip of Hollywood socialites. The cast of the show includes Faye Resnick, Nicole Simpson’s best friend, and this season’s addition of Kathryn Edwards, the wife of O.J. Simpson’s former best friend and football player Marcus Allen, has only brought Simpson’s trial back into the spotlight.

In June, ESPN will release O.J.: Made in America, a five-part 30 for 30 documentary detailing not just his controversial trial, but also his upbringing, rise to athletic stardom from high school, college, and into professional football, and his transition into a bona fide television and film celebrity. O.J.: Made in America has already premiered at the Sundance Film Festival with many viewers calling it the most ambitious project to date of ESPN’s celebrated docu-series.

And if you had to associate one person or one family with America’s current reality TV landscape, they would probably be related to a member of Simpson’s defense team, Robert Kardashian. Nowadays, it is incredibly difficult, without completely disconnecting from television or the Internet, to go one day without hearing something about the lives of the Kardashian/Jenner family.

Yet despite our society changing immensely in the last 20 years, there are still cultural flashpoints today that make the Simpson trial relevant again and worthy of further examination.

We might not have had riots in Los Angeles, but rioting took place in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore following the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Four police officers were caught on camera kicking and beating Rodney King on the side of the street in 1991 and in 2015 the shooting death of Walter Scott by a white Npolice officer in South Carolina was captured on a cellphone video camera. The death by strangulation of Eric Garner by New York City police officers was also captured on camera. And out of these stories and numerous others the Black Lives Matter movement has arisen to fight for racial equality for African Americans.

One of the most interesting reasons for why Simpson’s story has again become relevant, may have to do with America’s examination of professional football and the debilitating impacts a professional career can have on an athlete’s body and mind.

Back in the 1009s and early 2000s, few people had ever heard of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. We all knew that football was dangerous, and that players could get concussions, but the idea that the impacts could be long lasting and increasingly debilitating was not something that most Americans were familiar with. Now we are. We know that CTE can cause memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually dementia.

We also know that upon a player’s death, we are finding out that an alarming number of them suffered from CTE, which can only be confirmed via a brain examination after the person is deceased.

The film Concussion was released last December, with Will Smith starring as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who first discovered CTE. Much of the film focuses on the National Football League’s attempts to suppress Dr. Omalu’s findings because they knew that the spreading of such information could have been disastrous for the league. The knowledge of CTE is widespread in our society now, so the idea that Simpson may have suffered, and still suffer, from the decease is worth discussing.

Despite our society changing immensely in the last 20 years, there are still cultural flashpoints today that make the Simpson trial relevant again and worthy of further examination. 

Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., who plays Simpson in The People vs. O.J. Simpson recently said that he believes that Simpson may suffer from CTE.

“I believe that after O.J. passes, if we have the opportunity to dissect his brain, we will find the CTE concussion syndrome,” Gooding, Jr. told HuffPost Live.

During Simpson’s marriage to Nicole there were accusations of domestic abuse, and Simpson’s 2007 arrest for armed robbery and kidnapping definitely displays impaired judgement. We cannot confirm whether Simpson does or does not have CTE, but the newfound awareness of this debilitating disorder does add an extra layer of intrigue to Simpson’s story.

Simpson embodies a fascinating mashup of America’s racial divisions, obsession with celebrity, and passion for a sport that destroys one’s body and mind. As Simpson remains relevant over the next handful of months, let’s hope we all remain interested in exploring and examining how his life has been an engaging and controversial convergence of so many aspects of American life.

Barrett Holmes Pitner is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and columnist who focuses mostly on race, culture, and politics, but also loves to dabble in sports, entertainment and business. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, National Journal, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettPitner.

Illustration via Max Fleishman

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