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The Juice Who Greenwashed the Heritage of Black Athlete Activists

By Howard Bryant

O. J. Simpson in the 1976 Hertz Rent-a-Car ad
O. J. Simpson in the 1976 Hertz Rent-a-Car ad

Editor’s note: It bears repeating now that O. J. Simpson’s death was announced on April 10, 2024. One thing he will not be famous for is joining the heritage of Black athlete activists like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos. As Howard Bryant explains in this passage from The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, Simpson helped usher in the era of the greenwashed Black athlete who chased big salaries and “colorblind” clout, all while kowtowing to white America.


Americans have shown they can only discuss race within two frameworks: Things are better than they were or Get over it. So what exactly happened to the Heritage in the 1970s that began a nearly half-century slide into dormancy, when protest was transformed from noble to toxic? O. J. Simpson happened to it.

These two racial frameworks defined the 1970s well, and OJ was the perfect embodiment of both. The country was tired, tired of war, tired of race, tired of fighting—and definitely tired of black people asking for stuff. America wanted to call itself colorblind (an odd aspiration for a place that also prided itself on being a “melting pot”), and Simpson represented the future, the hope, the American dream for both races.

He was the anti–Jim Brown, the anti–Harry Edwards, which for black people meant that he was the symbol of long-promised equality and for whites, proof of their goodness and willingness to finally open the door, proof that black people could finally, at long last, stop bitching about race. All they had to do was work hard, like OJ, and if they had the goods, the rewards would come, just like they would for OJ. Across many a dinner table in white America, the frustration of “What do these people want?” was assuaged by the clean-cut, wholesome, and uncontroversial figure of O. J. Simpson. If they could only all be like him. Black people, tired of being represented by the Bad Negro (Sonny Liston, villainous boxer, line 1) or the Mad Negro (Jim Brown, rich, famous but always angry, line 2), desperate for the formula that would coax white society into accepting black people, were saying it too. “Give me a guy like O. J. Simpson, who is neat and clean and well-spoken,” wrote the longtime Chicago Defender columnist Doc Young. “You take all those guys who are too lazy to get a haircut, who foul the air with curses and other dirty words each time they have an audience, who talk about killing humans like the deed is no worse than swatting flies, all the while bemoaning ‘whitey’s’ brutality.” None of this would age well.

Simpson was postracial before that became a thing. He benefited from the battles and the boycotts and the protests without having participated in them. In the 1970s, mainstream popular culture began to slowly permit an increasing black presence in television and movies, and commercial endorsements, and sports was already ahead of other industries in featuring African Americans. Someone was going to profit from this new day, especially if he was willing to leave the confrontation behind and make America feel good about itself, and O. J. Simpson was the one uniquely positioned to take full advantage of the exciting and lucrative new doors that were opening.


While the government held hearings on redlining, and white resistance over school desegregation ripped cities apart (and black frustration that black communities were denied resources to improve their schools without having to attend schools with white children), the good life awaited O. J. Simpson. There were opportunities for black athletes to join the mainstream world of endorsements and integration that had never existed before, and OJ took advantage of every one of them. The other great, top-shelf player during the early 1970s was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the ad men and marketers of Madison Avenue weren’t too keen on him. Kareem was too aware, too serious, and, most of all, too political. Simpson was by far the most attractive to the ad makers.

And OJ was in the perfect storm. The bidding war for players between the NFL and AFL before the 1970 merger increased salaries. Simpson’s 1969 four-year contract was for nearly $400,000. It was once unheard of that a rookie would begin his career making $100,000 in a season, but the money was exploding in all sports. In the three seasons from 1972 to 1974, the Milwaukee Bucks paid Abdul-Jabbar $350,000, $378,000, and $399,000, respectively. In December 1975, what Curt Flood had started in baseball was finished when baseball arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Both were granted free agency, and the reserve system was dead.

When players asked for salary increases, owners had forever told them the teams were broke, but the money following the Seitz ruling exploded. In 1972, the Atlanta Braves made Aaron the highest-paid player in baseball at $200,000 per season. In 1976, the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $3 million deal—$600,000 per season. Three years after that, Nolan Ryan became the first player to earn $1 million per season. In 1981, the Yankees signed Dave Winfield to the biggest contract in professional sports history: ten years, and—wait for it—$23 million. The following year, George Foster signed a free-agent deal with the New York Mets that made him the first player (because Winfield’s contract was backloaded) to earn at least two million dollars per season.

The money even came with some ceiling-shattering seats at the table that just five years previous appeared unlikely. In 1973, the Milwaukee Bucks made Wayne Embry the first black general manger in NBA history. The next year, the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson, the first black manager in baseball history. In 1977, Ted Turner, the new owner of the Atlanta Braves, made Bill Lucas, Henry Aaron’s former brother-in-law, the first black general manager in baseball.

Less than a decade earlier, Bob Gibson, the legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, had complained that his 1967 World Series MVP award may have come with a car but very few product endorsement opportunities. And that’s where O. J. Simpson steered the black athlete, from the Heritage to the suburbs, from identifying with black issues to green ones. Simpson opened a word of financial possibilities to black athletes. The baseball player Reggie Jackson and basketball star Julius Erving served as pitchmen for everything from Coca-Cola to TV sets. Before Jackson joined the Yankees, he once boasted, “If I played in New York, they’d name a candy bar after me.” And they did.

Simpson embodied the new mind-set of the advertising suits on Madison Avenue so much that in 1975, the rental-car company Hertz made Simpson the first black man to lead an advertising campaign. He was a national name, and his commercials became iconic in sports and marketing history. They made him the most visible black athlete in team sports, and in terms of overall name recognition in America, only Ali rivaled him. Simpson wore the face of possibility, proof to the corporate world that Nixon’s notion of “black capitalism” could be profitable. In 1965, the mean average salary for black workers was $3,318 per year; by 1975, the figure had doubled. Black financial health was a concept attractive also to Jim Brown, and it would explain why over the years he would rather vigorously support a string of Republican politicians who ostensibly stood for positions anathema to the people who thought they knew the man. In the end, though, “black capitalism” was a clumsy, hopeful term that was essentially meaningless. While the players grew wealthy, the boon for the community in the face of redlining and illegal schemes to depress minority areas was nonexistent. This was illustrated in the faraway year of 2015, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston published a study titled The Color of Wealth in Boston, in which it calculated that the net worth of the average white Bostonian was close to $250,000. For non-immigrant African American Bostonians, nearly a half century after Nixon introduced black capitalism, the study found their next worth to total eight dollars.

While selling his products to the black community, which was a major part of his appeal to Hertz, Simpson himself spent as much time as he could avoiding the same black communities in which he was raised.

Meanwhile, in that same year, 1975, but in a different universe, Muhammad Ali, Pan-African, anti-capitalist despite earning $10 million the previous two years, the anti-OJ, sat down for an interview with Playboy: “I was driving down the street and I saw a little black man wrapped in an old coat standing on a corner with his wife and a little boy, waiting for a bus to come along—and there I am in my Rolls-Royce. This little boy had holes in his shoes and I started thinking that if he was my little boy, I’d break into tears. And I started crying. Sure, I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catching hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”

The Hertz campaign was brilliant, groundbreaking, and also sinister, proof that the right black face could sell not only to black consumers but also to white—with a catch. Black and white consumers could interact with Simpson the pitchman, but not with each other. In his Hertz commercials, Simpson was affable, appealing to white middle-class America, from Boy Scouts to grandmothers. He was seen racing through airports, cheered on only by white people. In fact, Simpson was often the only black person in his commercials, assuaging any white fear that the advertising industry was promoting integration. After all, one black person was acceptable. Two meant they were taking over.

Advertising Age named Simpson the 1977 Presenter of the Year, even as he suffered one of the worst seasons of his career on the field, his last with the Buffalo Bills. The commercials were historic successes, helping to make Hertz the top rental-car company in America and O. J. Simpson a superstar. Simpson was as far from the Heritage as he could possibly be: nonthreatening, friendly, the guy you wanted to live next door. (Note: This would not age well, of course.)

Simpson was also, in contrast to Abdul-Jabbar, a test case for a new conceit: the colorless black athlete. Where Abdul-Jabbar would feel socially isolated as a black man living in segregated Milwaukee, Simpson was attractive to the public, who liked to think of him (and themselves) as color-blind. The product-buying public loved Simpson precisely because he did not identify his blackness as a particularly obvious or important characteristic. That made him saleable in a way Kareem, Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Bill Russell would never be. If the athlete was the most powerful player in the black American workforce because his success in sports suggested a more equitable, less race-conscious society, Simpson was the model for how capitalism was seen by whites as a vehicle, in their eyes, to erase racism. As Simpson once famously told New York Times writer Bob Lipsyte, “I’m not black. I’m OJ.” Black became green.

Simpson encouraged the erasure. He did not discuss politics, on camera or off. There was, for him, no Heritage. He did not make whites uncomfortable with demands on behalf of his people. Simpson did not use his power as the best football player in the game to demand the hiring of a black head football coach in the NFL, even though the league had nothing that resembled a pathway to head coaching in a sport that profited heavily from black labor. Despite its big-name, Super Bowl quarterbacks—Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese—the biggest name in football was Simpson, a guy whose teams made the playoffs exactly once in his ten-year career. Nor did Simpson use his celebrity to attack discrimination as Abdul-Jabbar and [Hank] Aaron did during the tense racial moments over segregation in housing in Milwaukee.


About Howard Bryant 

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for and ESPN the Magazine and has served as the sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006. He is the author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry AaronJuicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League BaseballShut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston; and the three-book Legends sports series for middle-grade readers. A two-time Casey Award winner (2003, 2011) for best baseball book of the year, Bryant was also a 2003 finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research Seymour Medal. In 2016, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and received the 2016 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.