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Simpson Has No Place in This Family Practice

It wasn’t a premeditated decision, welcoming O.J. Simpson to USC’s Orange Bowl practice Saturday.

It wasn’t that Simpson was invited by the coaches or athletic officials. It was a “unique situation,” Coach Pete Carroll said, a clash of the family that welcomed back a football star and a university that might wish its star who was accused of a double murder chose to stay away.

What could we have done? USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett said. “Frankly, something happened beyond our control,” he said. “It wasn’t planned. I feel our players and coaches handled the situation properly.”

Could Simpson have been kept away from a public practice where one and all were allowed to watch? Maybe not. Should he have been given a chance to address the team in the locker room after practice Saturday? Absolutely not.

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Should USC players have been placed in a situation where they could either be polite to Simpson or turn their backs? One of the pleasures of watching this Trojan team is that the players are so respectful, well-spoken and willing to answer questions, sign autographs and do interviews.

It was not Carson Palmer’s inclination to turn away from Simpson. It is never Palmer’s nature to be rude. So now there is a photo and video, nationally distributed, of Palmer smiling at Simpson, two Heisman Trophy winners chatting.

“How could Palmer do that?” USC friends and foes might ask. But it wasn’t Palmer’s fault.

Did Carroll have to say this afterward about Simpson: “It was good to have him out here. At ‘SC, our guys hold a Heisman Trophy winner in the highest regard. For them to get a chance to see him and visit with him was very special for them”? No, he didn’t.

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That comment evoked rage, pain, anguish and disgust from dozens of e-mailers, many of them USC alumni.

Jon Arnett, an All-American tailback at USC, former Los Angeles Ram and a 2001 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, wrote one of the e-mails. And over the telephone, Arnett was eager to express his feelings.

“I can understand the kids on the team who were very young at the time, doing what they did,” Arnett said. “But I can’t imagine Pete Carroll or anybody else, Mike Garrett, people in authority, who condoned this.

“Most of the USC people I talked to today, and I talked to a lot, are very unhappy. What I’m concerned about is the example it gives young kids in the United States that somebody with that kind of background can still be a role model because of a Heisman Trophy. I can’t condone it, I don’t understand it.

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“I think people like Carroll and Garrett should know that I, and many others, would walk out of anything Simpson would show up at. This is not a simple matter. To see Simpson on TV shaking hands with the kids as if it was all right, everything was all right ... I can’t agree with that.”

For those who say that Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial, Arnett would answer that in a civil trial Simpson was found liable for $33.5 million in damages for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. There seemed to be no thought given to how the families of the victims might feel watching Simpson smile and mug for the cameras. Or to how the families might feel when they read on Sunday that Simpson referred to the murders and his trials as “my ordeal.”

Simpson took advantage of USC. He took advantage of Justin Fargas, the USC tailback who had always admired Simpson, the football player. When Fargas -- whose father, Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas, knew Simpson through the acting grapevine -- took a chance and invited Simpson to practice, Simpson should have said no.

Any man with a sense of propriety, any man who cared about his university, any man who considered the feelings of anyone but himself would not have come to practice. A man with a moral center would have understood that, innocent or not, his presence anywhere is a flashpoint, especially so when he hadn’t attended a USC football function in well over a decade by his own reckoning.

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He would have known that showing up at this moment, at this time of celebration, could only tarnish the pride in this team, by its fans and his university.

But we know Simpson has no sense of propriety or feelings for anyone but himself. So he showed up. He conducted interviews and allowed himself to be photographed with players. Simpson is long past worrying if he looks bad. He certainly wouldn’t worry how he would make USC players look.

Anthony Davis, a former USC All-American tailback and Heisman runner-up in 1974, was passionately angry Sunday.

“That took a lot of gall to do that,” Davis said. “Simpson lost the right to be with the team in those situations. If I’m involved in the biggest murder case of all time, with all the controversy that surrounded that case ... that’s gall to do what he did.

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“When I saw that, let me tell you. Some people need to know when they don’t need to come around and some people need to know when to keep people away. You want somebody to talk to the players after practice? I’d be happy to. We don’t need O.J. Simpson to do that.”

“It was a unique situation,” Carroll said Sunday. “We’ve had previous players come by our practices -- Keyshawn Johnson, John McKay, Tony Boselli. We hold our former players in high regard.”

A misjudgment was made. It was made by anybody at USC who thought Simpson’s presence was not going to be taken negatively. It is a misjudgment to equate Keyshawn Johnson’s practice appearance with Simpson’s.

One of the great charms of USC’s football program is its embrace of tradition and its former players. “Family atmosphere” is not an empty phrase. USC football is truly a family.

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But a family can also teach lessons. That’s what is supposed to happen at a university, too. Whether you believe Simpson is guilty of everything, innocent of everything or is somewhere in between, if you are a USC athletic official or coach, you must know he is divisive and distracting. You must know he would do far more harm than good to your team this week.

Simpson could have stayed away. USC should have begged him to do so. Because nothing good happened Saturday after only good had been happening for so long with this group.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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