On April 10, OJ Simpson passed away at the age of 76. Although initially catapulted to fame by his career in the NFL and Hollywood, OJ’s early success was ultimately eclipsed by his alleged murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her lover, Ron Goldman. The double-homicide, subsequent trial, and acquittal rocked the nation—sparking a media frenzy and a culture war that revolved around questions of racism, police corruption, domestic violence, and celebrity impunity. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez joins Edge of Sports for a retrospective on the OJ trial and its consequences.

Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Dave Zirin:

Welcome to Edge of Sports, the TV show only on the Real News Network. I’m Dave Zirin, and right now we’re going to have some choice words about a subject that is roiling conversations across the country. Right now I’m talking about the death of O.J Simpson at age 76. And I’m going to speak about it with a familiar face to fans of the Real News Network. I’m talking about Mr. Maximilian Alvarez. So, thrilled to have him with me. Max, how you doing, sir?

Maximillian Alvarez:

Brother, I’m doing great. And it is really, really exciting to get to sit down with you in the studio and chat about this. And I just want to say for the record, what an honor it has been to work with you on Edge of Sports. If you guys are watching this, the rumors are true. Dave is just as amazing in person as he appears on-screen. And yeah, man, I just can’t thank you enough for all the great work you’re doing on Edge of Sports. And it’s a real honor to have you part of the team.

Dave Zirin:

Well, let’s see if they’re thinking that at the end of this segment. I don’t know.

Maximillian Alvarez:

All right, let’s dive into it.

Dave Zirin:

So, right at you, Max, I want to bring you back to 1994 and 1995. How did you process the trial of the century, O.J Simpson on trial for murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman?

Maximillian Alvarez:

Man, it’s a wild question to meditate on, because I feel like in a lot of ways, I process the trial a certain way as a kid in the ’90s. And I have processed it in a very different way as an adult decades later. I mean, I’ve told you, I’ve told our audience, I’ve talked about this many times on my show and other shows that I grew up in Southern California. I grew up in first gen, Mexican-American mixed race household, and I grew up deeply conservative. And in Orange County, the heart of the Reagan Revolution.

So, as you can imagine, growing up in that context with the O.J trial going on, the conversations in our house and around our family were very interesting and definitely left an indelible imprint on me at that time. Because I think this was one of the first, if not the first major media event where I was fully cognizant and conscious enough to absorb the fact that the entire country was talking about this, that it was something that adults got very animated about. It was on all the time on the TV in our house, the trial. It was a media circus in the truest sense.

But I feel like looking back on it, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those pictures or folks watching have seen it when a tree and a forest will grow, if there’s a steel beam, or a bicycle, or a car in its path, it’ll grow around that detritus. And I bring that image up because I feel like looking back at the O.J trial as a kid in the ’90s struggling to develop my own sense of identity and having the complex racial makeup that we had, I feel as if that trial did shape a lot of who I was. In the same way that that tree growing around an abandoned car, it still shapes the way the tree grows. But I was growing on a very false understanding of race, of the criminal justice system, of O.J himself to say nothing of gendered violence. So, much of that didn’t come back later.

And looking back now, it’s odd and in a way sort of, I don’t know, icky and difficult to look back at the false impressions that I had of the country and of the issues that coalesced around the O.J trial. And how that trial cemented these false notions that I would build my identity upon over the coming decades. And it wouldn’t be until later until I realized, oh, yeah, there’s actually a lot more to this trial than I originally thought. So, in a way, I feel like what we’re all doing right now is not just looking back at a point in time in our country’s history. But that was a touchstone for the ways that a lot of us would mentally and politically develop in the coming decades, I think.

Dave Zirin:

Absolutely. When I think about the O.J trial, on the one hand, it exposed how un-united or dis-united, the United States of America actually was a precursor to today, where people can have the common national experience of watching this trial and draw entirely different conclusions based on the guilt or innocence of the defendant, but also just based on what it represented. As you said, to some it represented gendered violence or the fact that if you’re wealthy, you can hire a dream team of lawyers and get away with murder literally. To others, it was, oh, this is 1994 just two years ago, where that was the L.A uprising referred to as popularly as the L.A riots after the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD in Simi Valley. Or Simi Valley was the trial.

But that in and of itself was so pungent to people that this has a context. The context of Daryl Gates, the chief of the LAPD, a context of the anti-gang initiatives and the context of a system that was weighted against Black people. So, on one side it was, oh, look at this rich guy. He can hire a dream team of lawyers. On the other side, it was like, oh look, even O.J Simpson is just a Black man they’re trying to put on death row or incarcerate forever. And when you factor in that the clear evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, all the things that have been put on the record as far as police officers, evidence, the racism of the arresting officer, it became something so much bigger than just this trial, but really this Rorschach test as to how you saw America.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, can I hop in on that real quick, because I’m really curious to hear how you yourself were developing in that cultural cauldron of the mid-’90s and how you were perceiving that. Of course, O.J was famous before that trial for being like an all-star athlete. But I guess to just round out the thought from the first question, again, growing up Brown in America, being the son of a Mexican immigrant, and growing up conservative, that’s not a rare thing. A lot of us are in that are in that bucket. But everyone’s got their own reasons for believing the things they do and feeling the ways they feel. And I just remember when I say I built my own identity on the false foundations that really came together in the O.J trial in the mid-’90s was for us, this was a clear example of the bankruptcy of liberal discourse on race.

Because there was a deep-seated and I think genuine belief in our family like so many others, that you live in a white country, do not let it define you by your race. And so, for the conservative side, for us, we were always really opposed to this notion of Latinos, we’re going to vote Democrat. Or Latinos are a marginalized or Black people are a marginalized community. We didn’t have the historical background to understand the breadth of systemic racism. We’ve lived it and experienced it.

But again, it was just like the politics around it were when you have a case where it seems so patently obvious that the defendant committed the crime, but then racially charged are being made to acquit him, when you don’t have that understanding of the larger systemic context there. You’re going to end up feeling after that trial, like a lot of people did, which was like, oh, the murderer got off free because of this argument about race. And that was something that, again, in my young mind, that’s all I was really seeing. And I just can see how that understanding really shaped who I was for the coming years. But yeah, I’m curious where you were at that moment and how it shaped the way that you think.

Dave Zirin:

Well, first of all, direct truth time, I am a Knicks fan. I was born and raised a Knicks fan. I’m watching the New York Knicks finally make it to the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. And then I’m watching it with a bunch of buddies. And then the game is interrupted for the Ford Bronco Chase. And at first we’re absolutely transfixed, like, oh my goodness, that the juice is loose. And everything that was going along with that. Absolutely transfixed. And then after a while it was, can we get the game back on? As soon as they said the goal is to hopefully have the car run out of gas. That was the goal of the police at that time, they did not want a high speed chase. It was a low speed chase, the most famous low speed chase in the history of this country. So, that was the first thought was, can we get the game back on?

But it was only as the trial processed into 1995, and I’m just coming into politics at this time, that I remember that it felt like a pool cue hitting the 8-ball, and it’s bouncing all around. And so, I’m going back and forth in my brain from thinking about it in terms of how do we understand this with regards to the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson called the police multiple times talking about spousal abuse and they didn’t do anything because of what is known as celebrity justice in Los Angeles. But then again, how do we process the fact that the LAPD is racist to its core, corrupt to its core, Daryl Gates to its core?

I mean, for me, the most pivotal political moment of my teenage life was the L.A riots, the L.A uprising. So, that’s all very fresh in my mind as I’m processing this case in Los Angeles and trying to figure out what it all meant. And then I have to say, I was very attuned to the fact that there were some people who wanted O.J to fry out of feelings that we need law and order in this country. This is about justice. We just made it through this L.A riot situation. O.J needs to find himself either in prison for the rest of his life or on death row, otherwise, there is no justice.

So, it’s interesting because sometimes we talk about it as if it’s almost like two progressive sides of the coin. Well, there are people who care about gendered violence and people who care about the way the rich can buy justice. And then there are people who care about racism. But actually, there was a huge third lane that was, we’re white. We’re angry. We think Black and Brown people have too many rights. And if O.J becomes free, it’s just going to become crime spree America because people will think that they can do whatever they want, including get away with murder. So, all of that stuff was operating at the same time.

And I feel like the times that we live in now, I called O.J America’s algorithm, because these times we live in now where it’s the loudest, the angriest, the meanest, the most bigoted voices that get the most play and attention, I feel like the O.J trial was the soil for that. And that’s why we’re still living with it to this day. So, it’s not even a look back at the 1990s, but an assessment of the wreckage of 2024 and understanding how we got here.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Yeah, I think that’s really beautifully put. And let’s unpack that even just a little bit more. Because you alluded to this in your great column for The Nation that you wrote about this, that there is something in the O.J trial that is both… I mean, there’s a lot there that’s very much a story of its time. Like you said, this was a really intense moment that folks who didn’t live through it or who have forgotten may not remember, yeah, we had the LA riots, we had the Bill Clinton and the Sister Souljah moment. We had the O.J trial and all of the cultural jokes that were made about… The anti-Asian jokes about Lance Ito, the racist jokes about Black people, the gender jokes about Nicole Simpson. And so, it was a really telling moment in the ’90s that I’m curious to get your thoughts on.

But also, as you said, there was so much in that moment that was a harbinger for the three increasingly nuts decades that lay before us. The fact that like you said, you had these just loud, extremely polarized, extremely partisan groups of people watching this trial and seeing fundamentally different things every step of the way. Again, we talk about algorithmic echo chambers and people in the internet age being so polarized and not talking to each other. But here we see in the age before Web 2.0, that polarization was still very, very present. And I think the one other thing that I would say, just picking up on that point that you made, this is what I mean when I say looking back three decades later, I feel gross trying to unpack the way this moment in history shaped me when I didn’t have the background, the context, the political wherewithal to understand it. But I think what it fundamentally boils down to is American culture was not equipped to grapple with a situation in which there are no good actors.

Everyone’s got some rot in them. Yes, the police were racist. Yes, they were caught on tape saying the N-word multiple times. Yes, Rodney King was beat on camera. So, that is right. And then yes, Johnny Cochran and his whole team we’re exploiting race to get their client off. And yes, by basically every metric we can surmise, O.J did it. And so, you have this intense cauldron of anxieties and political attitudes across the country converging on this case. And I think it really is a deeply American example of there is no universal principle of justice and truth that comes out of this. All it is which side is going to benefit from the corruption and rot of the existing system and claim that as a victory. But the rot is there at every point.

Dave Zirin:

And the rot seems to be the only thing both sides can agree upon, even if they’re not agreeing upon it explicitly. They’re all trying to outshout one another about what is so fundamentally wrong with the system. Instead of taking a step back and saying, well, how do we fix the system? How do we make sure that gendered violence becomes a relic of history? How do we de-racismify the LAPD? How do we make sure that Daryl Gates becomes a museum piece and not somebody who has any sway over our police department? And instead, what we’ve seen out of the O.J case, the legacy of it, I think is two things. One, the utter debasement of our culture. I mean, we’re talking about court TV, we’re talking about the shouting heads on cable news, we’re talking about the Kardashians. I mean, Robert Kardashian being one of O.J’s attorneys, the father of the Kardashian sisters and brothers, whatever they are or whoever they are. But it’s all and reality TV in general.

All of this comes out of the appetites that the trial exposed because it showed that the United States, America, the people have an appetite for celebrity, have an appetite for distraction, and have an appetite As W.E.B Du Bois predicted a century earlier for race, racism, race talk, the racial divide, the American obsession, all culminating in this one trial was utterly irresistible catnip for the American public. And then it metastasized all throughout every area of media. And that’s something we still live with strongly to this day and something that should trouble people. And I mean, maybe this can be a moment where we do actually assess where we are and say, all right, if the O.J case was like that patient zero moment that’s brought us to this point, what can we possibly do to have a better media culture? What can we possibly do to fight racism, to fight gender violence, to fight all the things, all the pressure points that the trial exposed?

Maximillian Alvarez:

Right. And again, you made this point, maybe it was in your Nation article, that it’s not necessarily that history went this way because of the O.J trial. If it wasn’t the O.J trial, it very well would’ve been something else in that decade. But again, this just became the perfect crystallization of a very intense and changing time in the country, in the world. Let’s not forget also that this was after the end of the Cold War.

Before the end of the war on terror, there really was this more commonly felt sense that capitalism had prevailed on the world stage. The pie was going to be big enough for everybody. You had the dot-com boom, real estate bubble. There was also amidst all of this, an appetite for those things that was also fueled by not having all the existential dread that we have today 30 years later with every news story that comes out. So, there’s also that. And I just wanted to underline again, because you mentioned how there were people within the progressive side and then there was a very big third category of predominantly white people on the other side. But again, you also had categories like my family that were somewhere in between.

And again, not believing at all that we ourselves were racist for thinking that O.J was guilty as shit. But yeah, this was happening as well at the time when affirmative action, especially in California, was a hot button issue. I believe that came to a head in ’96. So, the O.J trial fed into that racial discourse in the mid-’90s about affirmative action. And it was in fact a perfect example of what conservatives were trying to say. Which is like if you’re arguing about affirmative action and policies like that as compensating for historical injustices and racism, here you have a clear-cut case of light, but that does not negate personal responsibility.

And so, you had within that discourse through O.J, the ability for a large segment of the country to argue against the notion of systemic racism, to argue against the kinds of things that Cochran was talking about in his closing statements. And so, families like ours were very much influenced by that, because without an understanding of what systemic racism was, all we knew was like, well, if someone murders someone, they should still go to jail. And if they don’t because of race, there’s still a problem here. And I just stress that in detail because people watching can’t underestimate how much that trial and the verdict sedimented people’s understanding of liberal and left racial politics discourse for the next 30 years. It’s the touchstone to which people will always return to say, arguments about systemic racism are clearly bad because if they lead to a murderer getting off free, a murderer and an abuser getting off free, then something’s wrong.

Dave Zirin:

And then the flip side is if we can prosecute people based upon evidence, that’s faulty racism in the police force stuff that Attorney Barry Sheck exposed one of O.J’s dream team attorneys exposed in a very systematic way. And that’s another part of this that we have to say is it launched the careers of a lot of people. And some of them actually did good with their careers like Barry Sheck and his work getting people off of death row and being revolutionary with DNA evidence. Getting a lot of people whose lives were being destroyed as lifers and getting them off death. That’s just a side note.

But it’s just to say that yeah, the discourse about race and racism becomes very cemented in that. Like you said, there’s that one side that says, well, how are people getting away with murder? Just because you say systemic racism, that shows how bankrupt looking at that is. And then the other side, which is like, how can we have a court system that allows for something like this? And both sides have something to say. It just to me it’s the mark of our times that they couldn’t say it together and that they had to say it with a barricade in between them. That’s what makes it so difficult, even to this day. It would be a lot easier if it was just racist white people on one side and a sense of racial justice on the other. But it’s a big mix because of everything that the trial exposed about how divided we are. And unfortunately, we’re not divided in just one way, but we’re absolutely sliced and diced. And the trial exposed that.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Oh, again, I think that’s really powerfully put. And again, both shows again how it was a story of its time and foreshadowing the time of monsters that we are ourselves currently in. And I just wanted to wrap that into one question, if I may throw your way, thinking about how class, particularly wealth at the level of a star athlete like O.J, and the sports culture, like how that shaped the way that we understood this case, and how it also contributed to the death of two people in this case. And if I may, I just wanted to read, because I want to honor this really powerful piece by Moira Donegan in The Guardian about the gendered violence here. The pieces titled: O.J Simpson died the comfortable death in old age that Nicole Brown should have had. And it really resonated with me, especially after our conversation.

So, Donegan writes, “Cops were called to the Simpsons house, no fewer than nine times. It is likely that Nicole endured many more beatings than that without ever calling the police. But the officers were deferential to O.J, accepting his version of events. They were more impressed by his status as a celebrity former athlete than interested in what he was doing to his wife. Nicole’s friends reportedly often encouraged her to get back together with O.J. Her parents liked him too, and apparently regretted the divorce even though they were aware that Simpson was beating their daughter. He had set Nicole’s father up with a Hertz dealership. In the weeks before her death, Nicole told many people that she was afraid that O.J would kill her and get away with it. But these words of Nicole’s were not admitted as evidence at O.J’s subsequent criminal trial. The Judge Lance Ito deemed them ‘Hearsay,’ noting that Nicole could not be cross-examined by O.J’s lawyers because she was dead.”

And then just one more point to make, “Nicole Brown had just turned 18 and was working as a waitress in Los Angeles when she met the man whose violence would define the rest of her short life. One of the first times O.J hit her, he apologized by buying her a Porsche. After another time, he asked her to marry him. She said, yes. Abuse is like this. It’s contradictions and reversals. The batterer’s promises that he will change matched only by the victim’s desperate delusional wish to believe him. But domestic violence is like cancer, without intervention, it will march inevitably towards death. Nicole begged for help from police, from her friends, from her family, and ultimately, from a domestic violence shelter. No one was able to help her because no one was willing to stand between her and O.J. No one was willing to act like her life was more important than his celebrity.”

Dave Zirin:

That’s an L.A story in so many respects. I mean, it’s a story about celebrity, it’s a story about wealth, it’s a story about gendered violence, and it’s a story about something that I have heard from about a million different people. And not just in LA. Although I do feel like LA in some respects produced this and exported it, this relationship between police and sports teams. These are not superficial relationships. And it’s not just that cops are big sports fans. I mean, we’re talking about people who get hired to work security at stadiums. We’re talking about people who get hired as personal bodyguards or personal drivers of athletes. And that being one of the great plums of being a police officer in a big sports town. And then of course getting an autographed football for your cousin and all the rest of it. That proximity to celebrity is a narcotic. And let’s be honest, it’s a narcotic for most people in most professions.

But when you’re a police officer and you’re charged to protect and serve, and you have a gun on your hip, it all of a sudden becomes much more serious and much more dire. Especially if you’re being asked to do something, which I would argue police officers are frankly not trained to do. And that’s intervene peacefully in domestic disputes and making sure tragedy does not occur.

So, that’s one of the things I kept hearing when I heard that story police called nine times. Shouldn’t that also be evidence number one, that for those people who say defund the police and fund people who are actually trained social workers to intervene in these situations, who can get people to safety, isn’t this evidence that we need so much more than what we have when it comes to our laws that exist for public safety in this country? Because they have far too often make people feel unsafe. And we’ve also heard far too many stories of people who don’t call the police in these situations, not just because they think they won’t be able to get help, but because for concerns that when you call the police, you run the risk of the dispute ending with somebody in a body bag.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, this is going to be a very loaded final question from me. But looking 30 years later, having covered this world your whole career, through so many intense peaks and valleys, and developments in terms of the role sports are playing in shaping our understanding of race, our understanding of gender. We had the Colin Kaepernick moment, which you wrote a book about and have talked about a lot. We had the MeToo phenomenon that was a major reckoning, but clearly there’s still so much more to do when it comes to addressing the patriarchal structure and violence of our society. So, I guess I just wanted to ask, 30 years later, looking back, do you feel like we have advanced politically in terms of the roles that sports play in our understanding of what equality means and how we understand race, gender, and class? Or do you feel like the sports world, particularly professional sports and sports media, have found new ways to effectively do what was done in the ’90s around the O.J trial?

Dave Zirin:

All right. So, great question. Sports is still sports. It’s bigger than US Steel. It’s an athletic industrial complex, and it’ll always reward some of the worst actors in its midst if that’s what it takes to keep the trains running on time, and the cash register going, and the golden goose laying its eggs. So, I don’t think anything has changed on that front. What has changed, and we talked about how ugly social media is, but one of the other things it’s provided is a space for people with the kinds of analyses that we were missing in 1994, 1995. Where were the Moira Donagans in 1994, 1995? They weren’t being heard in the way that they can be heard now or people who have something important to say about race and racism.

I mean, the entire film by Ezra Edelman that won an Oscar called O.J Made in America, that whole film to me is a tribute to how far we’ve come in terms of our ability to understand all the different angles of something like this. Which I think in 1994, 1995, we were utterly unequipped to doing. So, I do see hope because we have a better ability to understand situations like this. And through understanding, well, that’s a prerequisite to change. So, we have that in our arsenal right now in a way we did not 30 years ago. But as far as has the sports world changed, uh-uh.

As Joseph Lowery, the great reverend and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, as he said about the criminal justice system in this country, he said it’s like a horse in that so much has changed. But a horse a 100, 200 years ago looks a hell of a lot like a horse today. It’s the same with the sports world. It was a horse 30 years ago. It’s a horse now. The only thing that’s changed is our ability to understand how to ride the horse.

Well, that’s all we’re talking about here on Edge of Sports. Thank you so much to Max Alvarez for that conversation, man. I really do appreciate it.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Thank you, brother.

Dave Zirin:

That was terrific. For everybody out there listening, please stay frosty. We are out of here. Peace.

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