O.J. Simpson: From the Sports Pages to Business Pages and Back Again

O.J. Simpson continues to reinvent himself, and now he appears to be coming full circle. So what’s the next logical step for the record-breaking football player/Hertz superstar in rent-a-car/actor/suspected murderer?

As we close out Black History Month, the ongoing Alex Murdaugh murder trial may trigger déjà vu for many people who witnessed the nonstop coverage of the OJ Simpson murder trial back in the 1990s. This is one prominent figure from the black community that definitely has a place in history, but still finds a way to make current day headlines and stay at the top of peoples’ minds.

During a recent interview with Simpson on Full Send podcast, hosted by Kyle Forgeard and Aaron Steinberg, Simpson lamented that while he gets plenty of invites for interviews, he turns down most of them. He makes exceptions for interviews related to the sports world. “I stay away from last century. Because I did a ton of interviews back then and it made no difference. Nobody changes their mind.” Simpson stated that he prefers now to focus on events from his life that occurred in the 21st century. Presumably, Simpson means that he no longer wants to talk about the unforgettable 1994 murder trial for which he was the main suspect in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman.

For myself, I had never heard of O.J. Simpson until this high-profile murder trial took place in 1994. But while Simpson first became famous for setting records as a football player (he was the first running back to have a 2,003 yard season in 1973), he also seems to be setting records in his ability to reinvent himself, for better or worse.

The Superstar in Rent-a-Car Became a “Marriage Made in Heaven”

Simpson’s desire to keep his public exposure sports-related, as he mentioned in the recent Full Send podcast interview, is fascinating to me. Because his goal was the complete opposite when he began his role as advertising spokesperson for Hertz car rentals back in 1975, and subsequently became known for quickly and gracefully leaping over luggage racks during Hertz commercials, with a suitcase in one hand and a trench coat in the other. Hertz executives discovered prior to launching the campaign that many businesspeople consider renting a car to be a “necessary evil,” and wanted the transaction to be fast and easy. What’s a better symbol of speed than Simpson, a Heisman trophy winner known as one of the greatest running backs in football history?

Hertz began to see positive results from Simpson’s advertisements almost immediately. In the first three quarters of 1976, the company saw net profits yield $532.6 million, which was a 47 percent increase from the year prior. Also, shortly after Simpson began the campaign there was a 36 percent increase in the number of people who considered Hertz to be the best rental car company.

Tom Elliott is my grandfather, and he also happened to be vice president of public relations for Hertz during the time when Simpson came on board. “It was a marriage made in heaven,” is how Elliott described the relationship between Hertz and Simpson. This quote was used by writer Randy Harvey in a 1977 Chicago Sun-Times article OJ.’s Hertz Commercials Like Heaven Made Marriage. Elliott’s job was to go beyond the advertisements and develop an association between Simpson and Hertz on the editorial side, with television and radio broadcasts and newspapers. “One of our jobs was to try to get him off the sports pages and onto the business pages of the newspapers and we were able to do that,” says Elliott.

O.J. Simpson Tom Elliott Hertz

A case in point was the 1976 cover article of the New York Times, dressed up with photos of Simpson in his business suit from Hertz advertisements, contrasted next to a photo of Simpson in his football gear. The article’s title was Hertz Is Renting O. J. Simpson and They Both Stand to Gain. Sure enough, in 1976, Simpson was making between $100,00 and $250,000 a year for his work with Hertz. Eventually, that yearly salary turned into $550,000. “OJ Simpson liked it because he was wanting to end his career as a football player and become an actor and he wanted recognition that he couldn’t get with his helmet on and his uniform,” says Elliott.

Things Haven’t Changed for O.J. Simpson and His Female Admirers

Elliott recalls at least one instance when he was at a TV station with Simpson and one of the producers asked him to pass along her phone number to the “superstar in rent-a-car.” And so when I was listening to Simpson’s recent interview with Full Send podcast, I discovered that some things just haven’t changed for him. During his recent stint in a Nevada prison for his armed robbery conviction, Simpson told the podcast he received plenty of letters and photos from women (though he claims that the prison wardens prevented any inappropriate photos from being passed on to him). Simpson said he has since met one of the girls that wrote him and sent pictures, and though he worried he would be “catfished,” the woman turned out to be just as beautiful in person.

O.J. Simpson was Known at Hertz for Being Easy to Work With

When I asked Elliott what Simpson was like as a business partner, he said the “superstar in rent-a-car” was very nice and easy to work with, and that when they traveled he was always concerned about making sure that the porters handling their luggage received the tips they deserved. Upon the news of the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, with Simpson turning up as the prime suspect, Newsweek published an article called Day and Night. Elliott was quoted as saying “He would literally sign autographs so much that he would have to get up and walk away because his hand would just cramp. It was a very hectic schedule, but he never complained. He was polite through the whole thing.”

Elliott was not alone in this sentiment. In 1994, the Washington Post reported that most Hertz employees found Simpson to be good natured, never to complain or throw tantrums, which would have been expected behavior from many other celebrities. Simpson stayed as long as was necessary to get the job done and didn’t give people a hard time because of his superstar status. “O.J. was a dream in public, very gracious and very appreciative of what Hertz had done for him even after he was not as involved with them,” said Murray Gaylord, a former account supervisor for New York’s Scali, McCabe, Sloves, which was an advertising agency contracted by Hertz in the early 1980s.

O.J. Simpson’s Views on Race

The final aspect of the Full Send podcast interview with Simpson that struck me was his sudden embrace of his identity as a black American. This doesn’t seem to have been the case in years past. “My biggest accomplishment,” Simpson once told the journalist Robert Lipsyte, “is that people look at me like a man first, not a black man.”

“People have told me I’m colorless,” Simpson told the New York Times in 1976. “Everyone likes me.” Yet in the recent Full Send podcast episode, Simpson states how when he was convicted in 2008 of armed robbery, a conviction he believes to be unfair, that out of “24 jurors, not one was black.” An interesting contrast here with the 1994 murder trial is that “it has been suggested that the jury’s acquittal of Simpson was racially motivated, as Simpson, as well as nine jurors, were Black.” This is according to a recent Grunge.com article written by Jennifer Deutschmann, who then goes on to state that “Columbia Law School professor, Patricia Williams, argues the verdict had nothing to do with race (per NPR).”

What’s the Current National Temperature on the 1994 O.J. Simpson Murder Scandal?

When I asked Elliott what his thoughts were on Simpson’s 1994 murder scandal, he says “nothing I ever experienced with OJ Simpson would indicate to me that he was capable of murder.” Simpson’s murder trial culminated with the sensational deliverance of a verdict of innocence, though it seems that most of the American public assumes otherwise. Some individuals in the media have expressed belief that the reason Simpson wasn’t found guilty was because evidence was mishandled (and potentially planted) by the Los Angeles Police Department, or that investigator Mark Fuhrman’s past history of using racial slurs presented a conflict of interest. Others believe that prosecutor Christopher Darden’s choice to have Simpson try on the glove in front of the jury (which prompted defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to voice the famous line “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit!”) did a lot to sway the panel of jurors. There are other theories that have surfaced since the trial ended in 1994. Dallas private investigator William Dear speculated back in 2012 that Simpson was actually covering up for his son who committed the crimes, and while some of the evidence Dear presented in a book he wrote is compelling, it doesn’t dismiss the highly suspicious behavior presented by O.J. Simpson himself.

It seems that Simpson made it from the sports pages to the business pages to completely monopolizing the airwaves of mainstream media, perhaps unlike any other person in history. And now he has come full circle, reverting back to the sports mediums. The only logical next step for Simpson that could build upon this potential glimmer of humility? For him to become reborn and finally accept Jesus Christ as his Messiah.

O.J. Simpson

Photo of O.J. Simpson with my grandfather’s son, my uncle Andy (on left) who has now passed away.

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