Commentary

O.J. is a cautionary tale, but will anyone learn from it?

Updated: December 6, 2008, 8:52 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- When a person reaches the golden years, it should be with pride in reflecting a life of working and achieving, and relief at finally being able to relax, soothed by accomplishment, even as the body fades.

O.J. Simpson celebrated his golden years with the possibility of dying in prison. He walked into Courtroom 15A at the Las Vegas Regional Justice Center Friday morning wearing a navy blue, state-issued V-neck jumpsuit to be sentenced for his part in an attempted armed robbery on Sept. 13, 2007. His wrists were shackled by handcuffs attached to a steel chain around his waist. His face, as it always has been, was remarkably unlined, even as the gray has begun its inexorable march across his hair.

He didn't look particularly old. But so much of his story, so many of the details of his bizarre, self-destructive actions, and so many of the tired symbols he has come to embody, most certainly were.

When the sentencing was over, the 61-year-old Simpson was broken, first by the recognition that this time his celebrity, fame and charm would prove insufficient commodities to provide an escape for him, and finally when Judge Jackie Glass confirmed his suspicions by sentencing him to a minimum of nine and a maximum of 33 years in state prison.

He will be incarcerated at least until 2017, when he will first be eligible for parole. Prosecutors, though, said it is very unlikely he will serve just the minimum of his sentence. He will be 70 years old before he even has an opportunity to leave prison.

[+] EnlargeOJ Simpson
Issac Brekken-Pool/Getty ImagesHis dignity and reputation were already gone. Now, O.J. Simpson's freedom is, too.
No athlete in American history has ever suffered such a spectacular fall. Why Simpson chose such a clearly losing path -- in his remarks to the judge, Yale Galanter, one of Simpson's own attorneys, used the term "stupid" at least a dozen times for Simpson's dangerous, ill-conceived plan to recover items from former associates -- might always be an unanswerable question to anyone but him. Another unanswerable question is whether athletes will ever realize that accountability applies to them.

Judging by the Plaxico Burress affair, it appears some still don't. Simpson should have provided the cautionary tale 13 years ago, and again today. As Glass pointed out so powerfully, Simpson could have killed someone, "an innocent tourist or worker." But O.J. Simpson believed in the protection that the hero always seems to get.

"At Mr. Simpson's initial bail hearing, I didn't know if he was arrogant or ignorant or both," Glass said. "During this trial, I got my answer. It was both."

There can be no underestimating the complete undoing of O.J. Simpson. He was once the country's greatest athlete. If Michael Jordan is considered the man who perfected the marriage of sports and marketing, O.J. Simpson is the man who pioneered it. If it is commonplace for athletes to sign multimillion-dollar contracts that now include music, movie and broadcasting deals, it is only because O.J. Simpson introduced to all parties the concept of crossover star power.

And now, it's all over. His dignity and reputation disappeared following his acquittal on a double-murder charge in 1995, and what was left of his freedom, well, that's gone now, too.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
Issac Brekken-Pool/Getty ImagesThe judge said O.J. was both arrogant and ignorant.
The juxtaposition of election night last month and the courtroom on Friday was all too obvious. The scene at Chicago's Grant Park, after Barack Obama won the election and in the process shattered so much of what people were convinced they thought they knew about the black and the white and the possibilities of America, hovered Friday over Simpson, his voice crackling, trying to negotiate the difficult task of sipping water from a Styrofoam cup while handcuffed. Thirteen years ago, it was Simpson who was the face of America. The famous photo of black cheers adjacent to white dejection upon the announcement of the Simpson acquittal served as proof that race was intractable, impossible to break. In 1995, O.J. provided the proof that blacks and whites viewed the idea of justice very, very differently

In the courtroom on Friday, sitting in the third row from the door behind the prosecution, was Fred Goldman, whose son Ronald Goldman was murdered along with Nicole Brown Simpson in 1994. Goldman has remained visible, as he was during Simpson's 1995 trial and acquittal and again two years later when the Goldman family won a $33.6 million civil judgment from Simpson.

There is hell on Fred Goldman's face. It is the hell of losing a child. Even the words are weak, unfair. "Losing a child" sounds like an item innocuously misplaced, like losing your car keys. Fred Goldman's son was murdered, taken from him and the world for no reason. He wears it sometimes like a deep scar, visible to the eye, easily traced by the touch, and at other times like a water balloon, quivering, tenuous, at any instant ready to spontaneously burst.

After Glass read her decision, Goldman and his daughter, Kim, left the courtroom, stood near the bank of elevators on the 15th floor of the building and began to speak. After a moment, Fred Goldman said he needed time to compose himself and agreed to speak on the courthouse steps. He walked to the far wall of the corridor, hugged his daughter and erupted in tears.

When father and daughter arrived at the microphones at the foot of the courthouse steps, the American hero culture -- the millions who side with the glamour and the talent and the money over everything else -- was waiting for them, its acolytes shouting loudly over each sentence.

[+] EnlargeFred Goldman
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesAfter the sentencing, Fred Goldman referred to O.J. as a 'monster.'
"GOLD DIGGER! THAT'S WHAT YOU ARE."

"It was satisfying to know that S.O.B. will be in jail. It was satisfying to see him in shackles, the way he belongs," Fred Goldman said. "He still had that arrogant look on his face when he came in and that same look when he left. He committed a crime and he's going to be where he belongs, with others of his kind."

"FREE O.J. SIMPSON YOU BLACK MALE HATERS!"

Fred Goldman continued to speak, although he had to hear the heckling. He was competing with the muscle of the celebrity culture, the culture that allowed Burress to walk into a New York nightclub armed with a gun while ordinary people were frisked at the door, that allowed a hospital to shirk its responsibility by not reporting Burress' gunshot wound (which is in and of itself against the law), a culture that demands accountability as long as it doesn't interfere with the fun.

If his son had been killed by a nobody, Fred Goldman would have been treated with respect. But Goldman and his daughter were taking on a hero, a man who has proved he has little in substance but made the people cheer, nonetheless.

There were only a half dozen hecklers, but that was six too many.

"There is never closure," Fred Goldman said over the din of the insults. "Ron is always gone. What we have is satisfaction that this monster is going where he belongs."

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
AP Photo/Jae C. HongSteve Thomas, 56, was among those who came to the courthouse to support O.J. on Friday.
"HEY GOLDMAN, ARE YOU GONNA TAKE O.J.'S RAMEN NOODLES FROM THE PRISON COMMISSARY, TOO?"

The Goldmans left and the lawyers took over. Galanter said he thought it was inappropriate for the Goldmans to be in attendance. ("I know it was open to the public, but it was an example of how the justice system can run afoul," he said.) He is preparing an appeal that may take up to a year. The prosecutors seemed disappointed that Simpson did not receive a harsher sentence, but insisted justice had been done.

Forty-six days away from the inauguration of the country's first biracial president, O.J. Simpson was sent to prison Friday, a pathetic anachronism. He left this Nevada courtroom very differently than he did the one in California 13 years ago. Then, race had torn the country apart. Now, there is no position in America that a person of color can't attain. There are no excuses.

The country did not split along racial lines this time. The police were not on trial. A convicted criminal with all the advantages the world could provide went to jail.

Unfortunately, the hero game still lives on, as the post-sentencing scene in the street revealed. But now, it lives on with one fewer player.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.