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December 06, 2001

Another Hall of Famer,
another Hall of Fame pariah

By Dan Patrick

Unlike in Cooperstown last Sunday, there was no controversy in Canton this weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The closest call, and it wasn't really that close, came when Howie Long and Ronnie Lott mentioned Al Davis in their induction speeches. Davis had been booed by fans earlier in the weekend, and The Man In Black is not very popular with most other NFL owners, but it never amounted to anything like what the mere specter of Pete Rose caused in upstate New York.

OK, there was one thing. Chuck Bednarik said today's players aren't tough. He said that today, at age 75, he could play in nickel situations. Or something like that. Just a cranky old timer who thinks things were better in his day. No big deal.

 O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson ran for 2,003 yards in a season for the Bills, but wasn't in Canton on Saturday.

But Bednarik had also said, a few weeks earlier, that if O.J. Simpson had shown up at this year's Hall of Fame ceremonies, Bednarik would have expressed his displeasure publicly and emphatically. Now Simpson has rarely visited Canton since his own induction. But the NFL had sent out special invitations for this year's event and went out of its way to coax as many living members as possible to attend what the league was calling "Pro Football's Greatest Reunion." A Simpson sighting was at least a possibility.

Some perspective:

  • Pete Rose is not welcome in baseball circles because he gambled on baseball games, hurting only himself and his legacy.

  • O.J. Simpson was tried, and acquitted, on a double murder charge.

    Nevertheless, Simpson's legacy is forever tarnished, to say the least. In the eyes of many, he committed those murders, yet walks free because of legal maneuvering by a Dream Team of lawyers who convinced a jury to look beyond the evidence. A few Pro Football Hall of Famers, like former 49er Bob St. Clair, would not have a problem with Simpson being in their company. But many others side with Bednarik.

    For vastly different reasons, Simpson and Rose are the same man.

    Both of these men will never enjoy the post-career life that athletic superstardom usually offers in this country. Unless you count Rose's life of one long autograph session and Simpson's lonely walks down lesser fairways than he was used to as charmed lives, these men are prisoners of their reputations -- one a gambler and the other a killer.

    As for Simpson in Canton, I'm glad he was invited but I am glad he didn't go. He is a card-carrying Hall of Famer and that will never change. But he would certainly have taken attention away from the inductees. He could have used this weekend as an excuse to set up a tent and sell things, but he didn't.

    Simpson was probably the greatest college running back of all time and his NFL career was the stuff of legend. But nobody cares about that legend anymore. We care about O.J. the person now, an ironic twist on the usual result of celebrity. With most famous people, we just want the songs or movies or touchdowns and we care very little about them as people. We may track their marriages or millions or scandals but we really don't care about them. And there is little they can do that we won't forgive.

    But that's where O.J. is different. Even though he was found not guilty, too many of us disagree with that verdict for Simpson to ever be what he once was. We might forgive Pete Rose some day and let him back into our good graces. But O.J. Simpson is gone for good. I got a glimpse of the enormity, and permanence, of Simpson's fall in June. I was in Los Angeles and played golf at Riviera County Club, Simpson's old haunt. Even though it was five years after the verdict, people joked about O.J. at Riviera, a place he was welcomed as a member for years. People asked if I was going to help him with his debts. Cracks were made about finding the real killers.

    I was asked if I wanted to see his locker. I said no.

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