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'Telefriendship' Generated Simpson's Wide Appeal

July 03, 1994|Tom Christie | Tom Christie is a contributing editor to Buzz magazine and also writes for Details magazine

O.J. Simpson is, without question, an American sports legend. But that is not why 95 million Americans sat glumly before their television sets, why so many hurt for this man charged with the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, why so many felt unsettled, even depressed.

Some of the greatest, most beloved athletes--Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell, Bill Shoemaker--are still with us, and yet none of them, had they been accused of a double murder, would have elicited the almost immeasurable response Simpson did. Shock, sadness, headlines, yes, but not national obsession. No, it wasn't Simpson's athletic career but what came after: It was television.

The fact is, we no longer judge our sports heroes on their athletic merits alone--but on what they do afterward, how they parlay their first career into their second, how they play off the field and in our homes. Thus, through television, the hapless Bob Uecker has become a more lasting figure than most of the players who outshone him at the ballpark--which was almost everyone.

Only those athletes with considerable television exposure--Frank Gifford, Arnold Palmer, Chris Evert--could come close to Simpson for shock appeal. It's the alarming synergetic nature of the medium, a medium linking us--individual viewers, a society, a culture--and whoever is on the box.

To succeed in television, you must reach us, touch us in some fashion, positively or negatively. This is why personalities who exhibit both qualities, simultaneously, have recently found remarkable success.

But Simpson was nothing but positives--he was made for TV, and it for him. First came the near-anonymous armored figure slicing through everything from UCLA defenders to the Buffalo snows--so graceful, elegant, charismatic and tough. Then came another sort of beauty and charisma--the face, style, smile, all atop the body of Achilles (Marv Albert this wasn't) and a past right out of Horatio Alger.

Nevermind that he was lousy at announcing at first, out of his league. Nevermind the on-air fumbles and slips, the language problems and the uncharacteristic looks that said, "Can I just step out of bounds here?" It didn't matter to us, because he was O.J. He kept trying, and he appeared to have a sense of self that suggested, if not self-effacement, the ability not to take himself too seriously. We like that in a person. TV does, too.

But he was serious, he was always serious. Well, ever since Willie Mays took the 13-year-old Simpson aside and said: If you do the right things, you can be bigger than I. (Do you suppose Mays mentioned television?)

Simpson did the right things. He starred at a multicultural high school. He starred at USC, winning the Heisman Trophy. He starred in the National Football League, breaking the single-season rushing record while playing for a mediocre team. This was the guy who said that on game days in the NFL, he felt he was the best-conditioned, toughest player on the field--not the biggest by far, but the toughest. This was the attitude he took with him after sports--when he embraced television, and television embraced him. It was, to say the least, a winning attitude.

Simpson said he wanted to be thought of first as a man, then as a black man. People like Simpson and Bill Cosby, who embrace a society at large, must realize they risk losing something of themselves, not to mention alienating some in their own subcommunity--but they must see a greater good.

No, he was no Jackie Robinson, no Jesse Jackson and no Martin Luther King Jr. Simpson was just a guy who managed to send his face and voice into our homes on Monday nights at a time when black sportscasters were virtually nonexistent, when black athletes were rarely able to parlay their records and battered knees into anything other than public relations, or worse. He was just a guy who got the first black-white buddy commercial gig, opposite Arnold Palmer, the Norman Rockwell of American sports. He was as attuned as Cosby to the importance of a positive image, and he was as ambitious as Cosby to personify it.

And he did. But where Cosby played a fictionalized surgeon and family man, Simpson played himself--a football star and family man, Los Angeles-style. "I think I've been a good person," he told ESPN. "I've tried to act normal. Sometimes, you know, people give you credit just for being normal." Indeed they do. If until recent events Simpson seemed so skillful at controlling his image, perhaps it was because the image was real, and that warm, caring person on the screen really was Simpson. It follows, then, that our affection for him was real.

Ah, but it's all too easy, television. We are so easily seduced, sitting in our living rooms as a Simpson takes a casual, graceful run through it, and it does not take much for us to believe that we are extended friends, this stranger-who-is-not-a-stranger and us.

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