When it involves celebrities, ‘we are one screwed up people’

Sep 18, 2007 6:11 AM

The strange sight of O. J. Simpson, now 60 years old and 40 years past his days of football glory at Southern California, obliging people standing in line waiting for his autograph while he answered reporters’ questions about being a burglar, is a story of this country itself.

So is the sight of Bill Belichick, a football coach paid millions a year, fined $500,000 for wrongdoing, but standing there in the glare of national television on the sidelines of Patriots Stadium last Sunday night, an angry grimace on his face as always, guiding the New England Patriots to victory after a standing pre-game ovation from 68,000 admirers of a cheater.

We are one screwed-up people.

Charlie Leehrsen, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated, had it right when he wrote recently that Michael Vick will gain redemption, not because of who his enemies are but because sports fans always work their way around to remembering that it feels good to forgive. And to win.

One man who has not forgiven O.J. Simpson is Fred Goldman, the father of Ron Goldman, who Simpson was accused and acquitted of murdering 13 years ago. When asked about Simpson’s latest arrest, Goldman’s father told The Early Show, "How wonderful. A lot of years too late, however. I would have preferred him found guilty of Ron and Nicole’s death, or in jail then. But frankly to see him ultimately or potentially go to jail — that’s great."

Whether people today think of O. J. Simpson as a great football player or simply a celebrity who beat a rap is immaterial. They still want his autograph. Why?

Leehrsen, writing about Vick before this current Simpson mess started, answered the question: "Will the rest of us let him back to where we had him before — meaning if not in our hearts, exactly, then in that place of honor where we hold the fastest, the strongest, the most exciting athletes of our time?"

Or, Charlie might have added, the fascination we hold for celebrities who cheat or who get tangled up with the law.

As for Belichick, he warms no one’s heart except Patriots’ fans. He learned under Bill Parcells that to be disagreeable pays off, or perhaps that is really his nature, or he simply does not like the press, which at times is perfectly understandable. He is, of course, a great football coach, his ethics notwithstanding.

Watching Bob Costas spar and fence with National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell in an interview last Sunday night showed that even the best of breed in sports reporting love to insert the old needle, but Goodell showed he is both tough and smart. He countered every sly Costas question with essentially the same answer about the huge fines: "It’s my job. I was hired to make sure all teams in the league play by the same rules, and I intend to do so. I’m sending a message."

That is heartening news. Ordering a half-million- dollar personal fine, another quarter-million fine for the Patriots, plus the loss of their first draft choice, shows that Goodell either has very big ones, or learned his lesson watching his basketball counterpart David Stern sweat it out under heavy fire when his world began to deconstruct as the sports public learned that an NBA referee would call games to gamblers’ tunes.

That episode was something from a "B" movie on boxing, but it happens to be American sports today.

And we all made it that way.

We have lost our compass and our sense of moral direction. Belichick is still standing getting cheers: fans at the U.S. Open tennis tournament still were shouting when the best players in the world were serving, and student louts at Rutgers (is the female of the species loutesses, like lionesses?) were shouting obscenities at Navy’s future admirals as Rutgers outgunned them on the football field.

Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy had it right when he said that was impermissible. We do not know how the student body reacted last weekend when Rutgers took advantage of another mismatch against Buffalo, but any repetition of the Navy shame is going to test Mulcahy’s mettle as to how to penalize tens of thousands of college students who haven’t learned a thing about civility.

I have come to a conclusion I never thought I would reach. Golf is the most civilized game of all.