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O.J. Simpson Is Being Released, but He Never Really Went Away

After a year of taking hold of the public consciousness, Simpson will reenter the public

(NBC News/Ringer GIF)
(NBC News/Ringer GIF)

It happened, of course, like it was always going to. The way it has in the past. O.J. Simpson, stern in state-issued garb. O.J. Simpson, talking quietly, telling jokes, making the people around him laugh. Hints of unsavory characters in the wings: a purported tell-all book published by a prison guard, whose mullet was then mocked by Simpson’s lawyer during a press conference. Bits of 2017 flair: Simpson’s pledge to look into starting a blog, his gabbing about Donald Trump. It played live on ESPN, because it’s a sports story; live on CNN, because it’s a news story; live on Fox News, because it’s a politics story. If you were like me, maybe you found yourself standing around a screen with a bunch of strangers in the final moments, with a bartender cranking up the volume as a Nevada parole board granted Simpson release. Maybe you gasped. It’s happened before.

O.J. was a Heisman Trophy winner and a bona fide superstar, but he remained a big deal because of us. He’s an enigma less because of the things he has done than because we have spent so much time asking why?, and trying, after the fact, to locate the precise moment his double-murder trial became a sensation. We know how to watch O.J. Simpson; we’ve been doing it for a very long time. We’ve watched him play and act and announce and sell rental cars and and march through a Las Vegas lobby and drive and try on a glove. Two years after the 20th anniversary of his criminal trial in the wake of the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, many of us found ourselves watching his image in a prestige drama on FX and a documentary on ESPN, which we then watched win nine Emmys and an Oscar, respectively.

After serving eight years in prison for convictions related to the armed robbery of two sports memorabilia dealers in 2007, Simpson’s release could come as soon as October. Not long after it was announced, Sports Illustrated pushed out a photo from its “Vault” with a caption: “The Juice is Loose.” Simpson stands, young and beaming, among four scantily clad women. They’re beaming, too, like they know the punch line: He’s on the loose now. Get ready, America!

But that’s not the real punch line. There isn’t one, not if you know what came in the years after that photo was taken: the domestic abuse, the threats, the violence. In 1997, a civil court found Simpson responsible for Brown Simpson’s and Goldman’s deaths, so he moved to Florida, where he could keep his money safe from his victims’ estates and where this fall, now 70 years old, he will likely return. The SI tweet was quickly met with various notes of confusion and horror at its celebratory tone. It was deleted.

For those of us who once again spent an afternoon watching O.J. in a courtroom, was the collective hope that he would be released? Maybe resignation is the better word: that eight years after he was sent behind the walls of the Lovelock Correctional Center, he would reemerge and retake his place, less rightful than inevitable, in the public eye.

Simpson will find himself in a different media world, but you can see now how it’s going to go. Perhaps he can, too. The stories are easy to imagine. Zoomed-in photos of Simpson wining and dining, of him being wined and dined. TMZ chasing him down, a woman draped on his arm. What do you believe really happened in 1994? How do you feel about Jay-Z’s song about you? Young people taking selfies with him; hand-wringing about it on social media. Flashes, maybe, of anger: Simpson, frustrated, yelling at the paparazzi. He is as ever a figure ready for his starring role in the checkout-aisle magazines, the Daily Mail sidebar, the evening news.

If 2016 was the year of O.J. Simpson the persona, 2017 — the year that began with celebrating shows about O.J. — would be the year of the real deal. Did we want this? We’ve spent two decades psychoanalyzing him; of course there’s an urge to see what’s next. How wouldn’t there be?