Saturday, December 06, 2008


In 1995, I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. On October 3rd of that year, I was eating lunch at the Burger King in the University Center. The dynamic in the dining room was very odd. The white students had congregated on one side, the black students on the other side. On the televisions hanging from the ceiling was the OJ Simpson verdict.

The room is silent, odd for a dining area, and the volume on the televisions is cranked up. The verdict was announced. Once side of the room erupted in cheers. The other side stayed silent, with heads dropping and little more than whispers being uttered. I ate alone that day, and I turned my attention to my newspaper, quickly wolfing down my sandwich so as to get the hell out of a very uncomfortable environment. I get back to the dorms, and the verdict is all anyone can talk about.

Fast forward to December 5, 2008. I'm sitting at a Red Robin with a couple of co-workers, ordering lunch. One co-worker looks up at the televisions suspended from the ceiling and makes a passing comment that the OJ sentencing is coming in. Conversation quickly turns to other topics. I continue to read the closed captioning on the TV in a very noisy dining area. Nobody is paying attention but me. I try to stay on top of the conversation while reading the sentences of 'no less thans' and 'maximum ofs'. I know OJ has received his sentence, but I can't make sense of what the actual sentence is. Then I read it: 15 years.

I join back into the conversation at my table. I finish my sandwich, use the restroom, sit back down and, in a room that never changed in emotion, said to my lunchmates, "15 years." They looked at me with confused faces. I repeated myself. "OJ got 15 years in prison." Shoulders were shrugged, and conversation quickly moved on to other topics.

What a difference between two scenes. I went back to work, clicked on a couple of news websites, and nobody had the headline up yet, even though the verdict was almost a half hour old by then. Finally, a co-worker said, "OJ got 15." Another said, "Good. It was over due." Not another word was said.

In away, when OJ Simpson was acquitted in 1995, it made him a joke in American culture. Had he been convicted, his celebrity status would have clung to him despite the notoriety. Many would have elevated him to martyr status. But in 2008, the acquitted OJ Simpson was a national laughing stock and an after thought. In a way, a greater justice may have been done. Simpson will spend a number of his remaining years in a prison cell. If this had happened 13 years ago, his star and his legacy still would have been bright to the naked eye. Today, it is barely noticed. Athletes are a vane bunch who desire to have their legacies fondly remembered. Today, OJ Simpson's legacy is only visible when it pulses in its death throes. That punishment, for a man like Simpson, may be greater than any verdict or sentence.

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