In my late 1960s and ’70s, when it came time to call the roll for the biggest names in sports and entertainment, that roll would certainly have included both Orenthal James Simpson and Bill Cosby.
I thought about that last month while watching an excellently produced five-part documentary, “OJ, Made in America,” a production that did far more than merely trace one man’s fall from grace but also had lots to say about athletes and their sense of entitlement; the role of athletes in speaking on social issues or, in Simpson’s case, the avoidance of it; and the systemic racism that can infiltrate law enforcement when measures aren’t taken to prevent its taking root.
While I vowed I’d had enough of the whole O.J. thing following my watching every installment of FX’s “American Crime Story: People vs. OJ,” given my guilty pleasurable fascination with true crime, I succumbed and watched “Made in America,” aided greatly by the wonders of the DVR, finally finishing it just a couple of weeks ago.
In Part I, the documentary conveyed the idea that one of Simpson’s goals following his Heisman Award-winning career as a running back at Southern Cal was to become so marketable off the field that race became secondary to what would today be known as his Q rating.
Well, indeed, by the time he was in the midst of an 11-year pro career that would one day earn him enshrinement in Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, he indeed reached that point, becoming a pitchman with few rivals, especially for a person of color.
Turn on the TV and there he was, trying to entice you to buy a Chevy or running through an airport much to the delight of those in the airport terminal as he tried to get to that Hertz counter. Open a magazine, and there he was in a new pair of Dingo boots or shaving with a Shick or slugging down an RC Cola.
Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at University of California, pointed out what I certainly missed as a much younger man watching those commercials. Edwards said the fact that white America would accept a black spokesman as long as there were no other people of color, say, in that airport through which the Juice ran.
By 1977, the national newspaper of advertising, Advertising Age, named Simpson its Star Presenter of the Year, an award given to him by someone else that, like Simpson, shows the inherent dangers of choosing celebrities to pitch products, Bill Cosby, someone Simpson saw and admired as an example of how successful a person of his race could be appealing to white America.
Cosby’s take three and a half decades ago for pitching Coke, Texas Instruments and Jell-O, according to Robert Klara, who writes for the website Adweek, was $3 million per year, mind-boggling numbers at the time.
As with Simpson, Cosby’s popularity even with younger adults such as myself and my cohorts at that time was enormous. I can remember attending house parties and, with my pals, sitting on the carpeted living room floor and listening and laughing uproariously at Cosby’s comedy albums, ones with names like “I started out as a child” and “To Russell, my brother, whom I slept with.”
In my lifetime, I could never have imagined any tarnishing of the images of these so-called good and talented guys. And, perhaps, that’s the naïveté of youth, that absence of cynicism that develops over time after you see more of the world and the nefariousness that can so easily manifest itself.
Now, both individuals’ names have been inexorably tainted, tarnished beyond repair by accusations of domestic violence, murder and rape.
As a former English teacher who spent well more than half his career in an internet-less world, I often encouraged the use of famous and insightful quotations in the writings of my charges, often taken from the that copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” that sat on my counter below the windows facing West South Street in St. Marys.
That Bartlett’s went with me when I retired. It was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “Character is like a tree, and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Perhaps, like me, for two men who once drew fans as easily as a porch light does moths, many of you were captivated by the shadow and missed the deformities of the trees.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.