As the USC Trojans walked through the peristyle entrance of the newly remodeled Coliseum on Saturday, they followed Clay Helton down the concrete steps toward the field, passing six oversized USC jerseys displayed on each side of the staircase recognizing the school’s six Heisman Trophy winners.
The display did not include Reggie Bush’s No. 5 after Bush forfeited the trophy and the Heisman Trust vacated his award in 2010 following an NCAA investigation that revealed he received improper benefits while in school. USC was forced to permanently disassociate itself from Bush, who was the school’s seventh Heisman winner, as part of the sanctions levied following the investigation.
While Bush’s name and number have been scrubbed away at USC, O.J. Simpson’s No. 32 jersey was prominently displayed along with USC’s other Heisman winners. Walk through the new Scholarship Tower built as part of the Coliseum’s $315-million renovation and there’s also a picture of Simpson, who won the 1968 Heisman, in a portrait recognizing USC’s national award winners.
USC’s insistence on continuing to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Simpson 25 years after the brutal murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman is disgusting and an embarrassment for a university with no shortage of athletes it could recognize instead.
There’s no good reason for Simpson to be celebrated the way he continues to be at USC. There’s no rule requiring the school to honor its six Heisman winners with massive jerseys at the Coliseum. It could use that space to recognize its 11 national championship teams or simply recognize great former players, Heisman winners or not. A No. 55 jersey recognizing all the great USC linebackers who wore that number from Junior Seau to Willie McGinest would be more appropriate than one honoring Simpson.
There’s no need for USC to scrub Simpson’s name and likeness from its history. What’s done is done and it would be absurd to act like he never played for the Trojans. But it would be equally ridiculous to pretend that Simpson, the football player, is separate from Simpson, the convicted felon. They are one and the same. When you’re celebrating one, you’re celebrating them both.
When USC was envisioning celebrating the school’s football history within a refurbished Coliseum, it had a clean canvas to paint a cardinal-and-gold mosaic of a storied 131-year history that includes more NFL draft picks (509) and first-round picks (81) than any other school. No program has more players and coaches to celebrate than the Trojans, and they chose to make Simpson one of the six jerseys they prominently displayed in front of the peristyle end of the Coliseum and chose to display his picture inside the Scholarship Tower.
USC officials shouldn’t need an incompetent organization like the NCAA ordering them to disassociate themselves from Simpson the way they were required to with Bush, whose biggest mistake was accepting money from a sports marketer during his last year in school. They should have the common sense to do that on their own. Honoring the school’s Heisman winners in the fashion they do is already an exercise in futility. Many USC fans who see the display believe it’s incomplete without Bush or an embarrassment with Simpson or both. The school has had 81 first-team consensus All-Americans; there’s no need to shine the spotlight on its complicated relationship with its Heisman winners.
While Simpson was acquitted of the double murders of Brown and Goldman at his controversial 1995 trial, he was later found liable for their deaths at his civil trial. In 2007 he was charged and convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping. It would be hard for anyone who watched the Academy award-winning documentary, “OJ: Made in America” or read Simpson’s repulsive fictionalized novel, “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer” to come away thinking Simpson is worthy of being honored by a university. USC officials comfortable with honoring Simpson may be the only ones still hanging their hats on his infamous acquittal in 1995.
When Simpson was granted parole two years ago after being in prison for nearly nine years after his armed robbery and kidnapping conviction, Helton was asked if Simpson would be welcome back on campus. “Right now with USC, what the administration and the athletic department have said is no, O.J. will not be a part of our functions,” he said. “That’s been the statement.”
A university official confirmed that is still the case and Simpson is not welcome at the Coliseum or on campus for USC games or practices.
It’s hard to defend honoring Simpson with his oversized jersey and picture at the Coliseum, as well as his Heisman Trophy and retired jersey inside of Heritage Hall on campus, while also saying he’s not welcome at either location. The reason he’s been banned is the same reason he shouldn’t be celebrated. You simply can’t have it both ways.
Following the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, the school removed Joe Paterno’s statue in front of Beaver Stadium. It was a difficult decision but one the school made at the time because Penn State president Rodney Erickson said, “Coach Paterno’s statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing in our university and beyond.”
There’s no Simpson statue at the Coliseum or on campus that needs to be removed. A clean break would take a moving box or two, not a construction crew. The question of whether or not the school should continue to celebrate a convicted felon or disassociate itself from him shouldn’t be that hard, but it’s one the school has failed to get right for more than two decades and seemingly has no interest in correcting as it opens its remodeled new home.