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O.J. Simpson Was Always More Than Polarizing

O.J. Simpson leaves the courtroom during a trial in Las Vegas in September 2008. Simpson was later convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping.
John Locher/AFP via Getty Images

O.J. Simpson, the most infamously polarizing athlete of either our time or any other, died Wednesday of cancer at age 76, and when we say polarizing, we're giving him all the best of it.

Simpson was indisputably the greatest running back of his era, both in college and the NFL, but your mind's eye needs to work very hard and very strangely to get to the file of him wearing a Buffalo Bills jersey because it has already staked its place in the Los Angeles courtroom when he stood trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1995. That's where Simpson lives in America's head, as the obviously guilty man who was acquitted, the celebrity of celebrities whose lawyers made names for themselves by dismantling the Los Angeles police and legal establishment. He blew our own views of the legal system to smithereens and reminded any Americans who thought otherwise that race remains the foundation upon which all other things in this country are laid.

And then, because that wasn't sufficient, he capitalized on all of it for the final decades of his life, the embodiment of bulletproof celebrity, police incompetence and/or racism, a finger in the country's eye and a punchline all at once. We shed him of his surname so that he could become just plain O.J., The Guy Who Got Away With It.

He is among the most influential Americans of the last 75 years (we aren't getting into a quibble over Franklin Roosevelt or Steve Jobs) because of all of it. The football star with the warming smile and the electric running style who transformed into a game analyst and then a comedic movie star, and then in one night the avatar for all the unattended sins in our nation's subconscious.

Mostly, he laughed at us for our anger, and wore the overcoat of celebrity villainy with the same seeming ease that he had the cloak of national hero. He became the mirror for our sublimated cultural and political pathologies, and even if we didn't reference him in everyday conversations like we once did, he'd still pop up on this podcast or that from time to time to remind us who he was and what happened. He all but said why in a book entitled If I Did It, and owned the entire bizarre whirlwind of his work as though the new goal of his life was to agitate the nation. At that point nothing could come as a surprise, including spending nine years in prison after being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas over sports memorabilia he claimed was his own.

He even framed how we go about handling celebrities' passages through the spotlight. Now no one exists as an unqualified hero in the way O.J. did before the trial, no matter how hard their handlers try. O.J. taught us things about ourselves we didn't want to know and yet now embrace because we can't pretend any longer. This is O.J. Simpson's legacy as the Most Outsized American Ever, whether we are willing to own it or not.

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