O.J. Simpson's trial divided the nation. What legacy does he leave behind? : Consider This from NPR O.J. Simpson was more than a football star. More than a pop culture icon or a defendant acquitted of murder.

He became a symbol of America's complicated relationship to race, celebrity, and justice. His family announced that he died of cancer Wednesday at age 76.

The murder trial of O.J. Simpson became not only about one man and two victims, but the entire country. Coming up, we assess the legacy of a case, and a verdict, that put race in America on the stand.

For sponsor-free episodes of Consider This, sign up for Consider This+ via Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

O.J. Simpson's trial divided the nation. What legacy does he leave behind?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="/player/embed/1198911229/1244213554" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O J SIMPSON: Your Honor, I stand before you today sorry, somewhat confused. I feel I - apologetic to the people of the state of Nevada.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On December 5, 2008, O.J. Simpson stood before a Nevada judge pleading for mercy in a case where he stood accused of a robbery at a Las Vegas hotel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMPSON: I am sorry. I didn't mean to steal anything from anybody, and I didn't know I was doing anything illegal.

SHAPIRO: O.J. would ultimately serve nine years in prison. It was the final, ignominious low in the public eye for a man who had scaled the heights of American life as a football icon with the USC Trojans and later, the NFL's Buffalo Bills...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: O.J. is at 25 to 20. It falls ahead of the 15. O.J. Simpson just set a new National Football League record.

SHAPIRO: ...Starring in commercials...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMPSON: With new Hertz No. 1 express service, I fly nonstop from my plane to my car.

SHAPIRO: ...And in Hollywood films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!")

SIMPSON: (As Detective Nordberg) Police. Throw down your guns.

SHAPIRO: But beginning in 1994, O.J. Simpson would captivate American audiences for completely different reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The focus of the investigation - Nicole Brown's former husband, O.J. Simpson...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Is still traveling very slowly northbound along the 5 freeway...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The case that's captured the attention of the world.

JOHNNIE COCHRAN: If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - the murder trial of O.J. Simpson became not only about one man and two victims but the entire country. Coming up, we assess the legacy of a case and a verdict that put race in America on the stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. O.J. Simpson was more than a football star, more than a pop culture icon or a defendant acquitted of murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JUROR: We, the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder.

SHAPIRO: He became a symbol of America's complicated relationship to race, celebrity and justice. His family announced that he died of cancer Wednesday at age 76. To talk about the contradictions in O.J. Simpson's life and what he revealed about this country, we've called sportswriter Dave Zirin. Thanks for being here.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, hey. Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Let's begin with a moment when O.J. Simpson was near the height of his influence. He had been a huge celebrity on the football field, and this was an ad he made for Hertz in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMPSON: Nobody has more of what it takes to get you into a new LTD or other fine car faster.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hertz. Hertz.

SHAPIRO: At that point, what did he represent? What did people see when they looked at and talked about him?

ZIRIN: I mean, O.J. Simpson represented a kind of post-racialism in commercial culture in the United States. His appearance in those Hertz commercials was something we really hadn't seen before, which is a prominent Black American spokesperson for a major national company attempting to have a national appeal to consumers across the country. That made O.J. different. And in a lot of ways, it was the culmination of something that O.J. had been saying since his early days in the NFL, which was when he was asked about what his the feelings were about issues like the Civil Rights Movement, he would say, don't ask me that. I'm not Black. I'm O.J.

SHAPIRO: So he really not only embraced but promoted that post-racial idea.

ZIRIN: It was an idea that, in his own mind, he linked to economic success. It was linked, in his mind, to actually being unshackled by racism, and it was linked, in his mind, to being a celebrity first and any sort of spokesperson for a cause second.

SHAPIRO: Well, in 1994, he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. The country watched this car chase in real time on television, the famous white Ford Bronco. How did that accusation of murder land in the culture?

ZIRIN: Well, it turned the United States into a giant Rorschach test. Immediately, what you thought about racism, about police violence, about gender, about corruption, about domestic abuse and about a two-tiered justice system that favors the wealthy and the famous - people had strong opinions and opposing opinions about all of these topics. So O.J., who always saw himself as this kind of figure of unity in the United States, all of a sudden became this figure of profound polarization, where what you said about O.J. and the case actually indicated what you believed about a whole host of other incendiary topics.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And if the accusation and trial became a Rorschach test, then the verdict was even more so. His acquittal divided the country down racial lines. What did we learn from that acquittal about the different ways that Americans viewed race?

ZIRIN: Well, it's interesting. If the trial was a Rorschach test, then the verdict became, like, an early form of a social media algorithm, obviously decades before social media, with people turning on each other instantaneously based upon what they felt the case said about the United States. And it was strongly divided among racial lines because in the Black community when they looked at the trial, what they saw first and foremost was Los Angeles with its own history of police corruption.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about that, because the...

ZIRIN: Please.

SHAPIRO: ...Verdict had a lot to do with another famous case in Los Angeles involving a man named Rodney King, who was beaten by LA police in a traffic stop. So how did the King case factor into the Simpson case?

ZIRIN: Well, the King case and the LA uprising, LA riots that followed was only two years prior to the O.J. case. So it's still very fresh in the mind of Los Angelinos and people all around the United States. That's a very important point to remember. Also, people's lived experience, though, with corruption in the police force of LA, which later broke out grandly in the Ramparts corruption scandal, was also a part of how people were viewing the case.

And it became something where people looked at the case. They saw police officers who engaged in actions or past commentaries that were racist, like police officer Mark Fuhrman's use of the N-word in a recording that was played in the trial. And it made people say, well, wait a minute, maybe this isn't just about O.J., maybe this is about a broader corruption among police and a broader racism in U.S. society, while a whole other side was saying, well, wait a minute, what about Nicole Brown Simpson? What about Ronald Goldman? Where is the justice for them?

SHAPIRO: And here we are nearly 30 years later, and people still ask me if I'm related to Robert Shapiro, who was one of the lawyers in the trial. I am not. There is now a band called White Ford Bronco. I mean, all these decades later, what is the legacy of that trial?

ZIRIN: Well, the legacy of the trial is an entire era of the United States. The legacy of the trial is division. The legacy of the trial is the recognition - if we didn't have it before, we certainly had it after the trial - that different people see this country in profoundly different ways. And speaking about a United States of America can be a pipe dream at times.

SHAPIRO: What do you see as O.J. Simpson's legacy?

ZIRIN: O.J. Simpson's legacy is as a Rorschach test for how people view the United States on a whole host of subjects, all of which are still deeply, deeply important to people today. And that's why the legacy lives on. Because when we talk about these issues, we're also talking about the O.J. Simpson trial. And when we talk about the O.J. Simpson trial, we're talking about these issues.

SHAPIRO: David Zirin is sports editor at The Nation, and he writes the blog The Edge of Sports. Thank you so much.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: This episode was produced by Marc Rivers, Kathryn Fink and Kat Lonsdorf. It was edited by Courtney Dorning and Sarah Handel. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news