O.J. Simpson and the Counter-Revolution of 1968

Thoughts on the first episode of ESPN’s five-part documentary

M. Osterreicher / ESPN Films

Every fall Sunday, when I was a kid, half an hour before the pre-game shows and an hour before the games themselves, I would tune into the latest offering from NFL Films. This was the pre-pre-game show—an assembly of short films derived from the massive archive of professional football. Steve Sabol, whose father founded NFL Films, would preside. He’d offer and then throw it to Jon Facenda or Jefferson Kaye, who would narrate the career highlights of players like Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Dick “Night Train” Lane.

“Highlights” understates what NFL films was actually doing. The shorts were drawn from some the most beautifully shot footage in all of sports. It wasn’t unheard of for NFL Films to go high concept—this piece on football and ballet, with cameos from Allen Ginsberg and George Will, may be the definitive example. Great football plays would be injected not with the normal hurrahs, but with poetry. When Facenda, for instance, wanted to introduce a spectacular touchdown run by Marcus Allen, he did so in the omniscient third person: “On came Marcus Allen—running with the night.”

I watched that Super Bowl run live when it happened. I can still remember leaping up and down in my parents’ living room. But the NFL Films version, with its sweeping chords, is so powerful that I remember it through that lens. Indeed Todd Christensen—who was on the field in that very game—remembers it in the same way. The point of all of those sweeping chords was to convince the viewer that professional football was not just a sport, but an elegant tradition. The NBA was a game. The NFL was heritage.

More importantly, NFL Films was propaganda—beautiful, gorgeous, and artfully rendered propaganda, but propaganda all the same. Some of that same footage appears in the first episode of Ezra Edelman’s majestic documentary O.J.: Made in America, though to very different effect. The five-part film is as great as everyone says—a majestic work which doesn’t uplift, but haunts. Edelman agrees with the NFL—football is heritage—but proceeds to put that heritage within the context of the flawed human history that makes football so necessary to us all.

In this business, it’s worth restating that O.J. Simpson was a dazzling tailback and Edelman frames him in all of his balletic beauty. We see Simpson—high and angular—his hips lurching in one direction, his head swiveling in another. We see him accelerating at an uncanny rate—surrounded by swarm of defenders, and then just as suddenly alone in the open green. He seems to have an advanced sense of space and time, twisting defenders in knots, juking them until their sense of balance distorts and they fall as though struck by a great blow. There’s one shot of Simpson falling untouched on a play and the defender falling with him. But unlike the defender, Simpson gets up and keeps on running. “This is how it is supposed to be,” he said, attempting to capture the sentiment of breaking a big run. “This is correct. This is the natural state of things.”

NFL Films usually backs its highlights with loud, martial music. Edelman prefers the kind of subtle pianos and soft strings more appropriate for an in memoriam segment. Where NFL Films typically celebrates a running back gliding through a hole, Edelman seems to be mourning the death of some part of Simpson, or the death of some part of us. The contrast—awe and loss—works because football is itself a great contrast: a game of terrible, violent, brain-bashing beauty. As beautiful as Simpson is cutting through the field—and he is beautiful—you always know that the subtext of that beauty is 11 men paid and primed to inflict as much violence as the rules permit upon his body.

The employment of contrast goes beyond the music. Edelman pairs the violence of the football field with the violence of America itself. Simpson came of age in the late ’60s, during a time when America was exploding with riots and assassinations. He dazzled at USC—a veritable utopia built within walking distance of Watts. While other athletes perceived the overlap between sports and politics, Simpson and his coterie would have none of it. “For us, O.J. was colorless,” says the Hertz CEO Frank Olsen. And then the racist underpinnings of that “colorless” status become clear. “He’s African,” says the ad man Fred Levinson. “But he’s a good looking man, he almost has white features.”

What O.J. seemed to perceive—and then exploit—was the extent to which the larger country was interested in his talents and disinterested in the forces that produced them. At one point Edelman asks O.J.’s USC teammate Fred Khasigian what he thinks about when he thinks of 1968. Khasigian pauses for a minute. We see a collage of images—Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the violence at that year’s Democratic convention. And then he answers:

I think of winning all the games, getting O.J. famous. Everybody on campus thinking this is the greatest thing on earth. That’s all we thought about. There was nothing else going on.

In fairness, Khasigian is likely aware that more was “going on” that year. But he captures the insular sense at USC and around football in general—the notion that sport can, somehow, be greater than all of us. But it is not. And the contrasts that Edelman teases out throughout the film are not artifacts of the past. Though Edelman is skeptical of its import for Simpson, the question of CTE hangs in the background throughout the series. As do the ways in which black athletes are used up and disregarded at the college level. Episode One is a counterweight to the kind of slick football propaganda NFL Films fed us as kids. It works not by being delivered as an anti-football screed, but by showing all the beauty and ugliness of the game, all at the same time, and thus giving the truest depiction of pro football I’ve ever seen.