On September 8, 1989, "Late Night With David Letterman" hosted actress Shelley Winters -- promoting her PG-rated weeper "An Unremarkable Life" with Patricia Neal -- and NBC sportscaster O.J. Simpson. The Hall of Fame running back was about to start a season of the NFL on NBC and also was in the midst of a resurgence of his acting career; he'd just been in The Naked Gun, was a featured regular on HBO's "1st and 10" and recently appeared in a guest spot on NBC drama "In the Heat of the Night," starring Carroll O'Connor.
His second career, as a public personality and a pitchman and a sort-of actor, was in full swing, and Simpson's demeanor on Letterman's show is one of someone who hasn't a worry or care in the world.
Simpson is sort of charming in a cocksure way as he jokes about getting stopped by the California Highway Patrol (by Erik Estrada, presumably) for driving 170 mph in his Ferrari Testarossa. The whole point of the segment seems to be "O.J. Simpson is rich and fantastic and has so many wonderful toys that he just can't help but abuse them. Wouldn't you?" -- but the most telling takeway from the conversation is how lightly he takes the notion of breaking the law and having a police officer accost him for it. This is not telling because of what would happen five years later. This is telling because of what had happened eight months earlier.
Eight months earlier, after a New Year's Eve party, Simpson and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson had an argument at their estate in Brentwood, and Nicole called the police. When they arrived, Brown emerged from the bushes screaming, "He's going to kill me! He's going to kill me!" You can get a full account of the incident, including an animation showing the police arrival and where Nicole was hiding from O.J., on one of the many Simpson-case-obsessed sites still floating around the Internet.
The police arrested Simpson and four months later -- four months before the Letterman episode -- he pled no contest to spousal abuse and had to do 120 hours of community service and serve two years of probation. The couple released a statement saying, "Our marriage is as strong as the day we were married, if not stronger," and the mainstream press brought it. Most publications didn't even write about the arrest, and those that did emphasized Simpson "setting the record straight" about the whole misunderstanding. Simpson and his handlers did such a good job dealing with the incident that he could go on David Letterman four months later and joke about being pulled over by the police going 170 miles per hour in his fancy sports car, and no one thought to put two-and-two together. No one even knew to be mad at him.
That was 25 years ago. But it might as well be 1,000 years ago.
Last night, under the cover of darkness, the Minnesota Vikings announced that star running back Adrian Peterson was being placed on the exempt list, barring him from all team-related activities until his child abuse case is resolved. (He will still be paid his full salary during time away from the team, which at $11.5 million is not the worst compromise if you're Adrian Peterson.) This was a reversal of their previous position, which was to suspend him only for last week and then to have him back on the field for Sunday's game against New Orleans. It might seem strange for a team to reverse such a monumental decision less than 24 hours after making it, but by last evening, such a reversal seemed inevitable.
This was because, like everything else, the Vikings' bottom line was threatened. The Radisson hotel chain, aghast that their logo was in the background of the Vikings' defending of Peterson, pulled out as a Vikings sponsor. Nike yanked Peterson's jersey off its shelves, and, in the most thunderous move of all, Anheuser-Busch -- the league's biggest sponsor -- released a statement yesterday saying they were "increasingly concerned" and "are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league."
Nothing shakes the NFL to its core like having its advertisers start to quiver; everything the league does is to make those people happy, from strictly enforcing uniform regulations to snuffing out end zone celebrations to making the experience of actually attending an NFL game mostly miserable as you wait around twiddling your thumbs while the fifth Budweiser Lime-o-Rita ad of the last hour cycles through again for those watching at home. The NFL was not going to ignore them: It was going to force the Vikings to act.
The hypocrisy of this is staggering, of course, and not just Anheuser-Busch talking about its "moral code." The NFL and the Vikings are acting not out of any sense of making "the right decision." They are reacting for the same reason every major corporation reacts: Because if they do not, they will lose money. This is the same reason Anheuser-Busch and Radisson and Nike are suddenly so offended too; they see how angry everyone is about Peterson and Ray Rice, and they don't want their #brand associated with that anger.
But mocking these corporations for their opportunistic outrage is ultimately pointless. Capitalism is apolitical and amoral by nature: It goes where the money is, and avoids being anywhere near where it isn't. Blasting the NFL and the Vikings and Nike and Anheuser-Busch for not caring about child abuse until they had no choice but to care about child abuse might feel personally satisfying, but it's beside the point.
The point is this: You made them do this. Every single aspect of both the Ray Rice and the Adrian Peterson incidents has been driven not by the NFL, or the sponsors, or team executives. It has been driven by you. It has been driven by our need for information, and our need to react to it on social media and our need to let others know our anger. Sure, a lot of this is empty, temporary anger: We see a video and we are furious, but we don't get offline and start volunteering at battered spouse's shelters, or see the awful photos of Peterson's son's wounds and start working as a children's rights advocate. But it does not mean that it does not matter, and it does not mean it does not make a difference.
If the Ray Rice story would have happened 25 years ago, or 10 years ago, all we would have known was that he and his wife had a disagreement, they were both arrested, neither pressed charges and everybody moved on. He would have started at running back for the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1, and no one would have thought a thing about it. If Adrian Peterson had whipped his child 25 years ago, or 10 years ago, there would have been charges filed, maybe, but it would have been a local Minnesota story, at best. He'd be playing too.
All of this was propelled from the outside. Both Rice videos. The fury at Roger Goodell for his initial two-game suspension. The leaks of not only the photos of Peterson's son but also the story of another son he allegedly beat. The advertisers seeing the outrage, being overwhelmed by it. The pressure on everyone involved, from the league to the sponsors to the team to the players … it has all come from you. From us. Sure, it's cynical and hypocritical of all these entities to pretend they care about "the right thing" and justice, when all they really care about public relations. But that doesn't mean that the right thing wasn't done, that justice wasn't actually served. That's because of you. That's because so many people spoke up and, more important, they could all hear us. They couldn't ignore us if they tried.
Twenty-five years ago, O.J. Simpson could be arrested for domestic violence, plead no contest, put out a vague now-back-off-me public statement and be yukking it up with David Letterman four months later. Now if you've done something awful, and there's evidence of it, you're not going to be playing next week, and no one will ever look at you the same way again, and all your employers and enablers will scurry away from you as fast as possible.
And maybe, just maybe … we can stop you from doing something horrible, something worse, in the future. That's because of the way our media works now. Sometimes it is terrible. Sometimes you look at Twitter, and social media, and comments sections, and it makes you despair for humanity. But sometimes it makes a difference. Sometimes it is a force for good. Sometimes, it really is progress.