Cultural Caviar

Was The Juice on the Juice?

June 22, 2016

Multiple Pages
Was The Juice on the Juice?

I’ve been pointing out for years that O.J. Simpson’s 1994 white Bronco run for the Mexican border from his lawyer Robert Kardashian’s house was a turning point in American cultural history, spawning the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, and much else that you could be watching on your TV right now.

It was the point when the world figured out once and for all that those countless channels being opened up on cable could be filled with all sorts of cheap-to-produce crud and people would watch.

This is the year that the media finally figured out this bit of its own history and is running various lengthy miniseries and documentaries about O.J. Simpson. But that raises the problem of explaining to young people who O.J. was and why.

All good young people today know that America was virulently racist until, roughly, last week.

But the O.J. story is hard to fit into The Narrative of endless white racism. Here’s a black man who was wildly popular with white Americans in the distant past.

The New York Times Magazine offers an attempt, “Why ‘Transcending Race’ Is a Lie,” by a young black writer to make the O.J. story fit everything he’s learned from master historians such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. Greg Howard explains:

Every black person, successful or not, has to overcome a steep handicap; the idea of racial transcendence is anchored in the fallacy that the handicap is blackness itself, rather than a society that terrorizes and undermines blacks at every turn.

Personally, I had thought that O.J. had terrorized and undermined Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman while trying to decapitate them, but now I guess I see it in the big picture.

“The more I look into the history, the more likely it seems that some heroes of my L.A. childhood were experimenting with performance-enhancing drugs.”

Seriously, the reason the conventional wisdom has such trouble making sense out of the Simpson story is because O.J. epitomizes how beloved blacks had become by American whites in the last third of the 20th century…and how often blacks then let whites down.

Meanwhile, over at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, they’re trying to use advanced statistics to figure out why all the old folks had heard of O.J. even before his murder trial. Greg Guglielmo asserts that “O.J.’s Football Fame Was Mostly Based On Two Great NFL Seasons,” 1973 and 1975.

Nah, a half-dozen years before he peaked in the pros, O.J. had been the most famous college football player since Red Grange in the 1920s. O.J.’s two seasons with the University of Southern California Trojans in 1967–68 were incredibly well publicized.

Color television and instant replay were introducing a new golden age of spectator sports, so O.J.’s 64-yard run to beat #1-ranked UCLA was replayed over and over in “ABC Color Slo-Mo.” In 2016, there’s nothing novel about the play, but 49 years ago O.J.’s combination of strength and speed looked like the future.

Indeed, O.J. had been immediately recognized as the future of not just football but of American sports from early in his first college season.

Much of that had to do with playing in the media capital of Los Angeles, and Simpson’s good looks and sociopathic charm didn’t hurt. (Still, contrary to what many of the more immature pundits have suggested, O.J. was hardly the first popular black athlete in America. Baseball player Willie Mays, for example, had been adored since The Catch during the 1954 World Series.)

But if you simply look at O.J.’s college yardage statistics, his acclaim isn’t too surprising.

I watched O.J. rush for 238 yards on 47 carries against #13 Oregon State at the Coliseum in 1968. Those were science-fiction numbers by previous standards. (By the way, my ticket cost $0.55.)

For example, the previous season, in 1966, the top running back in the Heisman Trophy voting, third-place finisher Nick Eddy of #1-ranked Notre Dame, had rushed for all of 553 yards. The other three running backs in the Heisman top 10—Floyd Little of Syracuse, Clinton Jones of #2 Michigan State, and Mel Farr of UCLA—rushed for between 784 and 811 yards.

In 1967, in contrast, O.J. rushed for a spectacular 1,543 yards. In 1968, when they finally gave him the Heisman Trophy (which became the most notorious single trophy in sports when O.J. used subterfuge to delay the Goldman family auctioning it off as part of their huge civil judgment against him), he rushed for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns in 11 games.

There were several reasons why O.J.’s numbers were so outlandish compared with what college fans had been accustomed to.

First, O.J. was really good. He weighed 205 pounds and yet was a near-world-class sprinter. His USC track relay team—with future NFL star receiver Earl McCullouch, Fred Kuller, and anchorman Lennox Miller of Jamaica, who won silver and bronze in the Olympic 100-meter dash—set a world record in the 4x110-yard sprint relay.

Before the late 1950s, it was assumed that speed and strength were negatively correlated. Carrying a lot of upper-body musculature, while good for straight-arming would-be tacklers, would only slow you down, right? It’s basic physics.

But then bulky black speedsters like 1964 Olympic 100-meter champion Bob Hayes started to come along.

O.J. wasn’t the first of the big, fast black running backs. The even-heavier Jim Brown had been putting up huge numbers in the NFL for nine seasons before retiring in 1966 to be a movie star in films like The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. But by 1967 sports fans were fully ready for the new type of black running back pioneered by Brown and Gale Sayers, and O.J. was in the right place at the right time.

Second, college football offensive statistics hadn’t been very good before 1965 because players typically played both offense and defense. During WWII, Army (i.e., the West Point military academy) had so many good football players that the coach had introduced separate platoons on offense and defense. But the NCAA banned platooning from 1953 to 1964, so offensive skill-position players couldn’t specialize, which made them less skilled. And more tired.

Therefore, the statistics of earlier Heisman Trophy winners appear curiously muted to modern eyes. For example, 1959 Heisman Trophy winning running back Billy Cannon of LSU rushed for 598 yards for the season. But you have to keep in mind that Cannon was also playing defensive back, kicker, and punter.

O.J. didn’t waste his time doing much for USC besides running the football (and running track in spring). Oddly, when he was drafted number one by the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, the coach decided that his new celebrity was a distraction from, in his view, the real talent on the team, quarterback (and future GOP vice presidential nominee) Jack Kemp. So O.J. was used as a decoy at wide receiver, but he couldn’t catch the ball.

Eventually, Kemp went into politics, the coach was fired, and the new coach, Lou Saban, intelligently put O.J. at tailback, where he racked up the NFL’s first 2,000-yard rushing season.

Third, O.J.’s coach at Tailback U., USC’s John McKay, was not one of these old-fashioned helmsmen who thought it sporting to let everybody have a chance with the pigskin. McKay believed in recruiting a superstar running back and then giving him the damn ball, 35 times per game in 1968. When asked why he had Simpson carry the ball so often, McKay, a noted wit, responded, “Why not? It’s not heavy, and he doesn’t belong to a union.”

My vague recollection is that McKay also used that line after he had Ricky Bell run for 347 yards on 51 carries in 1976.

Bell died of dermatomyositis in 1984.

There’s a possible fourth reason for O.J.’s sudden fame, but one that needs to be put in question form: Was The Juice on the juice?

For some reason, the possibility that Simpson’s supremacy might have stemmed from early use of steroids seldom comes up in trying to make sense of the Legend of O.J. The usual assumption among sports fans is that O.J.’s era was an Age of Innocence before steroids. But the more I look into the history, the more likely it seems that some heroes of my L.A. childhood were experimenting with performance-enhancing drugs.

Los Angeles was the center of the sports world in the 1960s, including track and field. Did that have anything to do with Muscle Beach being one center of early steroid expertise?

In 1966, William M. Fowler of the UCLA medical school reported that steroids were unethical and perhaps ineffective, although popular among weight lifters and strength athletes in track and field.

Interestingly, Fowler didn’t ask football players, although this era was one of the high points of UCLA’s football prowess, with 1967 one of the two times UCLA and USC were #1 and #2 when they met in late November. (In 1981 I asked a former UCLA All-American why USC usually beat UCLA. He replied, “Because the USC players know that if they beat UCLA theywillberewarded.”)

When basketball big man Wilt Chamberlain was traded to the L.A. Lakers in the summer of 1968, he started hanging out at Muscle Beach in Venice and soon added 40 pounds of muscle. Perhaps he did it all just with weight lifting (few other NBA players lifted weights in the 1960s), and without pharmaceutical help.

But my impression is that Wilt wasn’t the kind of guy to refrain from trying something just because it was cutting-edge and the ethics were uncertain (note that steroids back then were considered scandalous if noticed, but weren’t a controlled substance). Wilt was easily bored and loved new things. Turning himself into a human science experiment in the revolutionary year of 1968 doesn’t sound like the kind of adventure Wilt would have passed up on general principle.

What about O.J.? The Juice was an outstanding track athlete at a time when Southern California’s leading track-and-field medicine man, Dr. H. Kay Dooley of track center Pomona, Calif., openly advocated steroid use. Dooley performed a steroid experiment on high school football players in 1965 and reported that, sure enough, they were pretty darn effective. He told writer Jack Scott in 1971, “A lot of physicians are stuffed shirts when it comes to sports.”

With Russia’s track team being threatened with exclusion from the 2016 Rio Olympics for drug cheating, it’s interesting to note that Dooley was the team doctor of the famous 1968 U.S. track team that set so many records in the thin air of Mexico City. Perhaps Dr. Dooley’s prescriptions played a role in some iconic 1968 Olympic moments?

While it’s long been well-known that steroids were a factor in Olympic throwing events like the shot put, the usefulness of performance-enhancing drugs in sprinting wasn’t widely understood among casual fans until Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal two days after setting the 100-meter-dash record at the 1988 Olympics. But the impact of steroids on speed was known to some experts much earlier.

None of this proves that O.J.’s revolutionary impact on football was due to steroids. Keep in mind that O.J. had been recognized as a major talent since a young age. There is an interesting story of an adolescent O.J. endangering his athletic career in San Francisco due to his gangbanging tendencies, so the San Francisco Giants’ all-world center fielder Willie Mays called him up. Willie didn’t try to argue the young O.J. out of being a thug. He just had the kid hang out with him for a day. Mays’ implicit message to Simpson was: This kind of life can be yours, too…if you don’t screw it up.

Eventually, after being given countless second chances by white society, O.J. screwed it up.

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