USC’s O.J. mess
Heritage Hall, the athletic department building at the center of USC’s campus, has seven Heisman Trophies and their recipients’ jerseys on display. Each of the seven players is highlighted in the USC football media guide and game-day programs. Enormous replicas of the retired jerseys are displayed all football season long below the peristyle of the Los Angeles Coliseum.
That’s right: USC still celebrates the football career of O.J. Simpson -- who was tried for a double murder, found liable in civil court for the death of his ex-wife and her friend, sued for pirating DirecTV and is scheduled to appear Thursday for a preliminary hearing in Las Vegas, where he is facing several felony charges in connection with an alleged assault on two sports memorabilia dealers.
USC has taken a very diplomatic approach to handling Simpson’s legacy. The school recognizes that Orenthal James Simpson attended USC and played football -- quite well -- before going off, like most Heisman winners, to a career in the NFL. But Simpson is not invited to any official university events. The school embraces his gridiron accomplishments while distancing itself from what came afterward.
I have to wonder how head football Coach Pete Carroll -- who had nothing to do with USC’s Simpson-era heyday -- feels as he walks past the Juice’s No. 32 jersey and Heisman Trophy each day. Is that lesson of compartmentalization one that Carroll truly wants to send to his players? Play football well and it doesn’t matter what happens off the field? That’s the message USC seems to be sending to players. Or, perhaps more accurately, that’s the message the players receive.
In recent years, Trojan football players have been arrested for or charged with soliciting a prostitute, spousal battery, sexual assault, simple assault and gun possession, while others have been punished by USC for drug possession and steroid use. And a lack of game-day discipline has been a factor in USC’s disappointing season. A holding penalty cost freshman tailback Joe McKnight a touchdown -- and the Trojans the game -- when they played at the University of Oregon on Oct. 27, eliminating USC from the national-title discussion for the first time in five years. There are 119 teams playing Division I college football. Only nine have been penalized more yardage than USC this year. But I guess a personal foul is de minimis when compared with armed robbery and murder.
Some of my fellow USC boosters say Simpson is being recognized for accomplishments that are 40 years in the past, and that it is possible to disassociate his triumphs as a running back from his recurring role as criminal defendant. USC has a proud football tradition; wearing cardinal and gold is an accomplishment, a ticket for many to the NFL. Still, no one should be so arrogant as to think that their talent on the field will excuse their behavior off it. Yet if Heritage Hall celebrates O.J. Simpson the football player while looking away from O.J. Simpson the man, regrettably, that is the idea we’re left with.
I understand the argument that the man’s troubles today have nothing to do with his athletic performance during the Johnson administration. I understand why, during the racially charged early 1990s in Los Angeles, USC postponed making a decision about how to handle Simpson’s legacy until after his criminal and civil trials.
But, as a USC alumnus and donor, Simpson’s antics are getting embarrassing. I listened to the tape from the Sept. 13 Las Vegas hotel room incident in which Simpson allegedly tried to steal his own memorabilia, and I have blushed in embarrassment as I walked into the Coliseum on Saturdays this fall.
If the Las Vegas charges stick and Simpson is convicted, USC may finally have the prompting it needs to take down his jersey from Heritage Hall and the Coliseum. With any luck, USC can replace it in coming years with another retired number. I’m thinking that it’ll be the No. 4 jersey that belongs to a future Heisman candidate -- Joe McKnight.
Scott Olin Schmidt writes about politics for Spot-on.com and is a contributor to the sports blog FanHouse.
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