In the middle of the NBA Finals, the white Bronco was slow-moving down the 405 freeway. In the front seat was Al Cowlings. In the back with a gun was O.J. Simpson. The retired NFL superstar had recently been implicated in the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Instead of turning himself in, he fled.
The fleeing was reality television before there was such a thing. It was June 17th, an irrelevant date except OJ was running away from his life. It was captivating and curious. And thrilling. Was he going to shoot himself before he could turn himself in? (Earlier in the day his BFF Robert Kardashian read to the press what felt like a Simpson suicide note.)
On the overpasses, fans lined the concrete railing cheering for OJ to getaway. Signs serenaded his impulsivity. Run Juice. Run. It was a cheap B movie theatrical harangue, at worst, and low hanging fruit at best, because every worthless escape movie has the same climax: the runner gets caught. For viewers though, it was the suspension of disbelief. Many kept their fingers crossed hoping that OJ beat the cops.
95 million viewers were riveted to OJ not beating the cops. It was a distraction, not from life, but from a playoff game. It was a night when sports didn’t really matter. Who even won that game? (The Knicks.) NBC did their part by breaking into the game with chase coverage and then going split-screen.
26 years later a lot has changed. In the OJ Bronco world, cell phones, social media, reality television, Google, cancel culture, excessive student loan debt was a vague idea. Like water dripping from a hose, technology entered the culture for convenience, entertainment, distraction, and information.
Many NBA players like Dwight Howard and Kyrie Irving and Lou Williams and Avery Bradley talk about the NBA as a distraction and as if we, the public, are so malleable and gullible and transparent we cannot participate in community engagement, and watch a game on television. They seem to think we are puppets that are unable to differentiate real-life horror from NBA entertainment, and that we don’t understand the seriousness of the hour.
But don’t define distraction for us. Don’t conflate entertainment with amnesia. Our brains won’t turn into mushy cauliflower if we catch LeBron doing LeBron things. We won’t suddenly glorify or romanticize police sadism. Tensions in the street aren’t reflective of competition on the court and in fact illustrate the richness of American life, the agony, and ecstasy.
I was talking to someone from Verizon. She lived alone and was having a hard time coping. She had no one to talk to and there were no sports on television. She said she felt like losing her mind half the time. Sports allow us to regenerate and recharge. It’s impossible to forget the damage of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and now Rayshard Brooks. It hangs over us like a terrible fugue.
Two pandemics linger consistently. Whether you are playing Candyland with your six-year-old or are watching CNN with the family, the events are numbing. It’s simply not true that to fight injustice you have to fight all the time. There is room for extra. I get what makes certain NBA players uncomfortable, that during a racial pandemic there will be joy on the court. Players will celebrate and high five and grin and laugh. Someone will get dunked on, crossed over, blocked. The imagery won’t be consistent with the message in the streets, how oppressed black men are on Channel 7. How competitive black men are on ESPN.
We’re sophisticated enough to understand entertainment and real-life exist in parallel universes. We can rage about police brutality and empathize with the family of Rayshard Brooks. But we want to see if the Bucks can beat the Raptors. That doesn’t make us shallow or fake.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman on the evening of December 1st 1955, and was quickly arrested; it triggered the Montgomery bus boycott. One year later, Reverend Martin Luther King ended the boycott. He said “the year-old protest against city buses is officially called off, and the Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the busses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis.”
It took 385 days for racial justice.
Emmitt Till had cotton gin fans tied to his ankles so he could sink into the Tallahatchie River. It was August 28, 1955. His mother Mamie had an open casket so the world could see what racism did to her 14-year old son’s face. 9 years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
Justice is slow.
Slaves were freed after the Civil War but no one told Texas slaves, particularly not their slavemasters. Texans in bondage didn’t find out about their freedom for two years. That day is celebrated as Juneteenth because it was the 19th day in June that the last of the slaves were freed, albeit two years after the fact.
Justice is slow.
Protests have never triggered instant results on their own. Protests have to marry policy and often the courtship is rocky. Systemic racism isn’t going to end in three months. Police reforms will be incremental and over time may provide relief to militarized communities. It’s going to be two steps forward, one step back. That’s how change happens.
In the interim, sports provide a safe space. It doesn’t kill brain cells or turn us into amnesiacs. That implies the men who have been murdered are so ephemeral that what happened to them is insignificant enough that watching sports will erase all of it. All of this history.
It won’t. Erase them. It won’t erase us.