How O.J. Simpson Created a Wider World of Sports

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- On June 17, 1994, sports coverage followed O.J. Simpson, Al Cowlings and a white Ford Bronco through the freeways of Southern California and never returned.

On a day with no shortage of sports to cover -- Arnold Palmer played his final round of professional golf, the World Cup kicked off in Chicago, the New York Rangers held a parade to celebrate their Stanley Cup win and the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets were set for Game 5 of the NBA Finals -- the biggest sports story of them all involved a retired athlete accused of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend. It involved a man who hadn't played a down of football in 15 years fleeing the police and threatening to commit suicide.

It drew sports coverage out of the sport itself and into the realm of both news and entertainment. ESPN argued as much in its 30 For 30 documentary about the day, titled June 17, 1994. Vanity Fair recently took it a step further by crediting the chase and ensuing criminal trial with the rise of reality television. That's not a tough leap to make when the timeline starts with Simpson friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian reading Simpson's statement to the press just before the chase and ends with Kardashian's daughter and reality television star Kim Kardashian marrying Kanye West this past Memorial Day weekend.

More importantly, it wiped away the thin line that divided "real" sports coverage and journalism from "tabloid" stories. Off-field incidents once confined to books like Jim Bouton's Ball Four or to front-page stories in the New York Post about Yankees manager Billy Martin brawling with marshmallow salesmen in hotels became part of the sports purview. Blogs like Fire Joe Morgan, Kissing Suzy Kolber, Bleacher Report, Awful Announcing, SB Nation and, most notably, Deadspin dispensed with formality and acknowledged that the lives that coaches, players, owners and administrators were living were as newsworthy as the games they played. The publications and journalists that covered those sports were opened up to scrutiny as well, and it took the entrenched sports establishment a while to adjust to that new reality.

The old liners are still having a tough time with it. ABC managed to offend auto racing fans nearly unanimously by going to a split screen at the end of the race that gave drivers' girlfriends and cloud wallpaper more than 85% of the screen space -- confining the race footage itself to a tiny box. A day later, ABC's Disney  (DIS) sports channel sibling ESPN alluded to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki's sudden split from fiance and golfer Rory McIlroy after Wozniacki's ouster from the French Open. The first words of their headline? "Break(up) point." We'll note that McIlroy didn't get the same treatment when he won the BMW PGA Championship a few days before.

The entertainment factor they get -- "Hey, an Indy driver dated Ashley Judd once, right?" -- but the context, nuance and balance seem to escape them. Contrast that with Deadspin's coverage, which had no qualms placing the pair's on-field performance in the background of a more complete breakup story. That story reduces actual sports to a one-sentence blurb at the end of the story while getting right to the point about a three-minute phone call that ended a marriage.

This isn't baseball's steroid scandal or Lance Armstrong/Floyd Landis' Tour de France doping where the salacious details are directly connected to the games themselves. This isn't NBA ref Tim Donaghy taking bribes and changing outcomes. This isn't Bill Bellichick and the Patriots spying on teams to pick up their defensive signals or Reggie Bush taking money from University of Southern California boosters. This is the game beyond the game: It's Kobe Bryant being accused of sexual assault, Tiger Woods keeping a dozen mistresses, Michael Vick fighting dogs, Brett Favre sending pictures of the contents of his jock strap to a female journalist and football player Manti T'eo being catfished on Twitter. It's the seemingly prurient interest that has a whole lot of impact on the greater sports ecosystem.

It's a party that networks, magazines and ESPN are usually late to and, in some cases -- especially like that of folks like ESPN's Chris "You're With Me, Leather" Berman and Darren Rovell -- is being thrown at their expense. However, it's opened the door to broader discussions about sports and its greater place in society that just weren't happening in 1994.

Deadspin's success allowed founder Will Leitch and even former ESPN writer Patrick Hruby greater latitude to discuss the bigger sports picture on Sports On Earth. That broader landscape allows Dave Zirin to frame questions of race, class, privilege and social change in the context of sports on Edge of Sports. It's what made one-time outlier and sports guy Bill Simmons such a force at ESPN that his Grantland site and 30 For 30 documentary series exist on entirely another plane than the Worldwide Sports Leader. It's what makes ESPN's "Outside The Lines" investigative series so vital when it's allowed to do its job and so disappointing when it's hampered by outside forces like the NFL's partnership with the network.

We see all facets of sports far more often than we did in 1994 and have no use for the unspoken rules that blinded us to most of them in the years before. The arguments about those changes coarsening our culture and eroding the sports landscape remain, but they're diminished by new voices that weren't being heard two decades ago. As deals like the $15.2 billion agreement ESPN signed with the NFL for Monday Night Football become more lucrative and the pool public money funneled widens, it's increasingly important to have all of these new voices looking into every aspect of sports -- even when it seems like overkill. When a league can use a contract with a sports outlet to quiet bad press and can use threats to divert taxpayer money into their own pockets, it's worth having those eyes that watched O.J. keeping track of everyone else.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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