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Why Doesn’t Anyone Ask if OJ Simpson Has CTE?

Zach Needell
Law Clerk, The Law Office of Luis Cartaya, PA
Juris Doctor Candidate, Emory University School of Law; 2018

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative disease of the brain developed as a result of repeated head trauma that can only be diagnosed after death. Its symptoms usually start to appear about 8-10 years after trauma and include, but are not limited to, memory loss, dementia, suicidal tendencies, and anti-social or erratic behavior. As a fan of American sports, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s everywhere. From ESPN to major motion pictures, CTE, its effects, and who’s to blame for its coverup have been at the forefront of the national conversation regarding contact sports, especially football, for the last several years and since its discovery an array of players have been diagnosed with the disease. So, as the entertainment industry turns its eyes back to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, might it be irresponsible not to ask and consider the possibility that he has CTE?

Although briefly incarcerated as a youth, O.J. Simpson stayed out of trouble throughout most of his early life. After retiring from football in 1979, Simpson focused on his career as an entertainer and sports broadcaster, keeping his popularity at highs not experienced by even the most successful professional football players. Then, in 1989, ten years after his retirement from professional football, Simpson pleaded no contest to an allegation of spousal abuse against his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.

In June 1994 Simpson was accused of brutally murdering his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The infamous car chase that ensued days later provided more insight into Simpson’s mentally unstable, suicidal state.

In 2001 he was charged with simple battery and burglary and in 2007 Simpson was convicted of stealing sports memorabilia at gunpoint from the Palace Station hotel and was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison.

Pieced together: we have a man who seemed on the whole to be a successful, well adjusted, and thoughtful person that, ten years following his retirement from professional football, began exhibiting signs of erratic, uncontrollable, antisocial, violent, and self-destructive behavior. These symptoms continued unabated throughout the rest of his life and ultimately led to him committing an armed robbery and ending up in prison.

Although the evidence of a correlation between CTE symptoms and the timing and behavior of O.J. Simpson are apparent, we can’t know for certain whether Simpson has CTE. Ultimately, the point might be moot because we will never know unless Simpson allows his brain to be examined post-mortem, but Dr. Bennett Omalu, the world-famous neuropathologist whose story is the subject of the film Concussion, stated that he would “bet [his] medical license,” that Simpson suffers from CTE. This raises a few interesting, and potentially important, questions:

Might O.J. Simpson have CTE?

To what degree might O.J. Simpson’s decision-making as it relates to his violent legal trouble be a result of the disease?

Why don’t we find many sports journalists, or journalists of any kind for that matter, asking this question and could there perhaps be a racial bias or a perceptual bias about football players that is in part responsible for this silence?

What, if anything, would such a revelation mean for Simpson’s legacy and the way we as a society view him today?

From both a legal and social perspective, how culpable is the NFL, who is the cause of the both the injury and the coverup, for the violent and life ending actions of players diagnosed with CTE or other major brain injuries?

And maybe most importantly: How would a potential diagnosis of Simpson with CTE affect other NFL Football Players?

This question goes beyond the Simpson case and extends to other instances such as the murder-suicide carried out by Jovan Belcher in 2012 and a string of suicides by other NFL Football Players including Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. However, given the manner in which Simpson’s story seems to be able to capture the American psyche like few other stories before it, such a revelation could have a variety of potential implications for current and former NFL players.

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