Category Archives: hero worship

The real O.J.?

Sometimes, when people learn that I spent a half-century as a sports journalist, they want to the inside scoop on what such-and-such athletic celebrity was “really like.” O.J. was one of those athletic celebrities in question.

As the New York Giants beat writer for Newsday in the 1970s, I had a few occasions dealing with O.J., at first when he played for the Buffalo Bills and later the San Francisco 49ers.

He already was football’s superstar and had been since his glory days at Southern Cal. The way he could find his way through the maze of defensive pursuers—floating, barreling, tiptoeing, darting—was fairly astonishing. Furthermore, he delighted in the public’s adoration, answering Beatle-like mania with charm and a personal touch. “He’s always kissing babies, hugging girls, shaking hands, signing autographs,” then-49ers publicist Dave Frei marveled. More striking to us in the writing press, ink-stained wretches accustomed to arrogant, uncooperative jocks, O.J. was among the most accommodating and respectful of interview subjects.

He also was wildly popular among teammates, regularly ushering his lower-profile offensive linemen into interview sessions so they could bask in his ball-toting successes. Opponents likewise admired both his prowess and demeanor. “Tackling O.J.,” a young Giants linebacker named Frank Marion told me after a 1978 game, “is like tackling a legend. And each time I got him, he’d say, ‘Nice hit.’ I just had to look at him and not let him get away. Because he can get away.”

Still, the magician doesn’t really saw the lady in half. Rather, he masters his particular vocation, as O.J. perfected his job and polished his popular image. Neither of which guarantees a look into the soul.

So, even before O.J.’s 1994 arrest in the knife murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman; before the low-speed Ford Bronco chase televised nationally; before O.J.’s acquittal in the spectacular trial and the subsequent 1997 civil trial in which he was found responsible for the deaths of Ms. Simpson and Goldman, I wouldn’t have claimed to know what he was “really like.”

I submit, in fact, that those four parole board members who just voted to free O.J. from a 2007 armed robbery sentence couldn’t know the man any better than I did. That is not to argue for or against the parole decision—that’s way above my pay scale—but only to point out how brief encounters with boldface names such as O.J., whatever the professional setting, aren’t particularly revealing.

When O.J. told the board he was “a good guy….I basically have spent a conflict-free life,” a courtroom prosecutor might have been moved to argue, “Objection, your honor. Assumes facts not necessarily in evidence.”

Much closer to an insightful summation of the man was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent profile in The Atlantic that described how O.J. always has been “an escape artist.” Beginning with his ability to evade tacklers on the football field, O.J. shook off poverty in the San Francisco projects where he was raised, slipped the usual restraints on blacks to cash in on endorsements and movie deals and survived that Trial of the Century. And once again, he’s out of the frying pan.

His life story—he’s 70 now—has played out as some mixture of drama, sit-com and soap opera, wherein he went from inspiring widespread fandom to giving many people the willies. In the 1970s, I was reporting on how he repeatedly got out of the toughest spots on the gridiron. A real escape artist. Any evaluation of his character beyond that slips my grasp.

Stop godding them up

The nice feature on former Yankee pitcher Jim Abbott’s 1993 no-hitter, aired this week by the Yankees cable network, is a good starting point to discuss an old conundrum in sports journalism—how a highly visible athlete’s inspirational feat too easily can be interpreted as a morality play.

That Abbott, who was born with only one hand, could overcome what he called his “situation” to pitch in the Big Leagues—let alone throw a no-hitter—marvelously demonstrated the power of the human spirit. A motivating, heartening triumph. It did not necessarily establish Abbott’s superior moral fiber.

Don’t misinterpret that. From all reports—including my own brief contact with Abbott six years before his pitching gem—he earned a reputation as a bright and decent man, roundly liked by his peers and easy for any spectator to root for. In 1987, still pitching for the University of Michigan, Abbott was named to the U.S. National team, which positioned him to compete in Havana, Cuba, as the Cold War still raged. He called that experience, and another shortly thereafter at the Pan-American Games in Indianapolis, a “great way….to close the gap of understanding between ourselves and others.” He was 19 at the time.

During the Americans’ series in Cuba, Abbott’s leaping stop of a Cuban batter’s infield grounder, and his in-one-motion throw for the putout—all with his one hand—had Cuban fans “on their feet,” he said then, “going crazy, buzzing for about five minutes.” Abbott was an instant sensation there, and even shook hands with Cuban president Fidel Castro.

When Abbott was asked, during the Pan-Am Games, what the football coach at his college—a certain taskmaster named Bo Schembechler—would think of a Wolverine shaking the hand of a Communist leader, Abbott’s good-humored (and insightful) answer was, “Actually, there is a very similar presence between the two men. Fidel’s much bigger. About 6-4 and real wide. But there is a tough-guy, dictator sort of presence about both of them.”

And no judgement beyond that. So here’s the point: What so impressed those Cuban fans about Abbott’s athletic skill, the same ability that thrilled Yankee fans in 1993, realistically must be kept in a “love the win, not the winner” perspective.

In a post for Indiana University’s sports journalism center Web site a couple of years ago, veteran sportswriter Dave Kindred told of long-ago sports editor Stanley Woodward advising a young Red Smith (on Smith’s way to becoming the first sports journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize), “Stop godding up the players.” That jocks have an ability—much envied, for sure—to hit home runs, shoot three-pointers and evade tackles does not automatically make them better people. They still are just people.

Think of double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, whose fairly miraculous Olympic races on carbon-fiber prostheses made him the self-described “fastest man on no legs” and overturned the definition of “disabled.” Or O.J. Simpson, not only a football superstar but (personal experience here) among the most accommodating and respectful of interview subjects during his playing career—and wildly popular among teammates. Or Lance Armstrong, outrageously dominant on a bike and enormously life-affirming to fellow cancer survivors.

It turned out that what those folks could do on the playing field was no window on the soul. And reminded that, if we’re not careful, we set ourselves up with counterfeit idols.

Just as true, though: Jim Abbott’s story indeed was thoroughly uplifting.