The University of Southern California has a proud tradition of excellence on the football field and this year has returned to its glory days under six years of the tutelage of Head Coach Pete Carroll. But not all trophies in the Athletic Department’s Heritage Hall are without tarnish.
Six Heisman Trophies – awarded to the best player each year in college football – are on display in the USC Trojan trophy cases. I assume USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett’s trophy (which would be the seventh statue) is in his office but the one trophy you’d think would be missing is, in fact, front and center in the display case. Yes, USC still celebrates the football career of O.J. Simpson – he who has been accused of double-murderer, found liable for the death of his ex-wife and her boyfriend, accused of stealing Direct TV and now facing eight felony counts in Las Vegas, Nevada.
USC gives all of its Heisman Trophy winners the same treatment. Their number is retired, their trophy and jersey are displayed in the trophy case at Heritage Hall, the university’s sprawling athletic center. Trophy winners’ numbers are also on large display in the peristyle end of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
I have to wonder how football coach Carroll – who had nothing to do with USC’s Student Body Right heyday of the 1960’s and 70’s – feels when he walks by O.J.’s jersey on the way into the office each day past Simpson’s #32 jersey and Heisman Trophy. USC has taken a very diplomatic approach to handling Simpson. The school recognizes that Orenthal James Simpson attended USC and played football – quite well – before going off, like most Heisman winners, to a career in the National Football League. But Simpson is not invited to any official university events. The school embraces his accomplishments on the field while separating themselves from his actions off of the field.
But is that a lesson Carroll truly wants to send to his players? Play good football and you’ll be heralded no matter what happens off the field? Because it seems that is the message being sent to USC players by the coaches and administration. Or, perhaps more accurately, that’s the message the players receive.
In recent years, Trojan football players have been arrested for or accused of soliciting a prostitute, spousal battery, sexual assault, plain old assault, gun possession, drug possession, steroid use and more. The list goes on and on and, of course, includes O.J.’s acquittal for for murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
Some of my fellow USC boosters say Simpson is being recognized for accomplishments that are thirty, nigh, forty years in the past and that it’s possible to separated by decades from his triumph on the field from his horrible behavior off the field. But being a football player at USC is a little bit like being a cardinal in the Vatican. USC has long tradition for winning football games; playing there as a college student is an accomplishment, a ticket for many to the NFL. The untalented, the modest, don’t make it. But no one should be so arrogant as to think that because of their talent on the field, society will excuse anything they do off of it. But if Heritage Hall celebrates O.J. Simpson the football player while looking away from O.J. Simpson the man, that is where we – unfortunately – end up.
Now, I can understand the argument that the man’s troubles today have nothing to do with his on-the-field performance during the Johnson Administration. I can understand why, during the racially charged early 1990s in Los Angeles, USC decided to postpone making a decision about how to handle Simpson’s legacy until after his trail.
But, as a supporter and alumnus of the University of Southern California, I have to say that Simpson’s antics are getting embarrassing. Having listened to the tape from the Las Vegas hotel room robbery where Simpson allegedly tried to steal his own memorabilia, I will likely blush in embarrassment as I walk into the Coliseum on Saturday.
Hopefully, if the charges against Simpson stick, he’ll be convicted this time and USC will be able to replace his jersey with a newly retired number in the off season. I’m thinking it’ll be the number 10 jersey that belongs to this year’s Heisman Trophy candidate – and likely winner – Trojan quarterback John David Booty.