Twenty years ago today changed our relationship with athletes forever. I don't have to be right about this but am pretty sure that I am.
Before O.J. and Al Cowlings led the LAPD on a surreal chase while the Rockets and Knicks played alongside, I think maybe we didn't want to believe or simply couldn't believe negative stories about our heroes.
Twenty years later and now when we hear about an athlete and an accusation I think we have to work to not assume guilt. This can be helpful in not feeling like a chump when it turns out that a guy really does have a problem with violence towards women. Not so much when a guy is wrongfully accused of the same.
For the longest time I had an extremely difficult time even talking about O.J. He was my first sports hero. I got his autograph at Niagara in '73. This resulted in my clipping game stories and photos from the newspaper all during the 2,003 yard season that followed. One time while shooting a series of interviews with NFL Films I even had to decline to talk about O.J. because I just couldn't get through it without getting emotional.
What the heck is that all about? I think for me it was a combination of feeling bad about a shattered childhood ideal and guilt over that emotion existing in me at all. I mean intellectually I knew the man had killed two people and gotten away with it, yet I was feeling bad because my favorite football player had turned out not to be what I thought he was. That's messed up.
We live now in an era of great skepticism. This is appropriate when it comes to something that really matters like how our tax dollars are being used. Not so much when deciding whether or not you want to root for a player on your favorite team. Now instead of really having favorites I end up kind of keeping them all at a safe distance, never truly embracing any of them the way I did when I was younger.
Of course that's probably more appropriate behavior for a grown man anyways, but I still feel like I've lost something along the way. I know, it's just growing up and realizing things aren't what you thought they were when you were 12 years old. But it still sucks.
By the summer of '94, thanks to skyrocketing player salaries and a resulting lifestyle that fewer and fewer fans could relate to, there was already a disconnect happening between fans and their favorite players.
O.J. himself did not construct that wall. But the summer of '94 supplied the mortar.