At each successive stage of his career, O.J. Simpson took a step down.
He was a hall-of-fame football player. He parlayed that notoriety into hawking products. That led to wooden cameos in feature films.
After he'd been accused of murder, he became a professional signatory of memorabilia. Once he was acquitted and reduced to the status of pariah, he morphed into geriatric bon vivant paid to keep company with unsavoury types.
That made sense. Simpson's 1995 murder trial pioneered reality television. He was bound to end up famous for being famous.
On Thursday, Simpson was parolled after serving nine years in prison for a botched bid to retrieve sports memorabilia in Las Vegas.
Among the only sensible things Simpson said at his successful parole hearing on Thursday was on the question of what comes next: "I'm not looking to get involved with the media."
Typically, he soon contradicted himself. In a letter written to a Nevada legislator that was read into the record, Simpson said, "Who knows? You may even see a webcast or a blog in my future."
Yes, I can just imagine America tuning in to get the Juice's take on this whole Russian hacking thing.
No, really. I can totally imagine that.
Riling up plebs in the village square is probably the job Simpson was meant to do, given his CV. He helped dig out the fetid trough that has become America's political conversation in the 21st century. He was a charismatic charlatan before those traits became prerequisites for seeking high office or a broadcast pulpit.
This isn't all his fault, but some of it is. Simpson was the guy who got away with it on a grand scale, emboldening others to try their luck. He was one of the first to realize that fame is an end, rather than the means to one.
Back in '95, we didn't get to hear Simpson tell his side of the story. Nevertheless, he spent the entirety of his trial performing – facial moues, exaggerated sighs and shrugs, the innocent look of befuddlement when the glove wouldn't fit.
As it turned out, Simpson had always been a great actor. We'd all just been watching him on the wrong stage.
Eight years in prison have not robbed him of that talent for drama.
He entered Thursday's hearing slumped in a posture of humility. He looks good for 70. You can still see the athlete he was in the grace of his movement. His face has become more malleable, though less controlled. As his crimes were read out, Simpson reacted to each one with mounting alarm, as though hearing them for the first time.
He promised not to prevaricate – "I haven't made any excuses in nine years here" – then did nothing but.
His introductory remarks amounted to retrying his armed-robbery case. Other people told him to come. Other people stole from him. Other people brought guns. Other people let it get out of hand.
He'd had an unsuccessful parole application in 2013 and made all sorts of promises at the time, none of which he'd followed through with.
That victim-empathy course he said he'd take? Yeah, he didn't take it, but … That turn through Alcoholics Anonymous he mentioned? Yeah, again, he said he would, but … Instead, he'd devoted himself to a job of real consequence – commissioner of the jailhouse softball league.
"My agenda was full," Simpson said. "I don't have much time to sit around and do anything."
You found yourself thinking, 'Is this the webcast? Are they doing sketch comedy here?' You'd expected a pantomime, but at least one cloaked in gravitas. The U.S. penal system could use a little good press. But it couldn't even manage that.
The parole commissioners repeatedly fawned over Simpson, laughing at his jokes and nudging him toward the correct answers. These bureaucratic schlubs must have known they were being watched and judged every bit as much as the prisoner, but the proximity of celebrity undid them.
Even his most brazen statements – "Nobody's ever accused me of pulling any weapon on them" and "I've basically spent a conflict-free life" – were allowed to go unchallenged. Maybe they didn't get cable in Nevada's high sierra back in the '90s. Because that's the only excuse.
When Simpson didn't testify in '95, it was thought an odd choice. Here's a man who's made his post-football living by charming strangers. Why not let him state his own case?
The answer to that question was again made clear on Thursday. In conversation, Simpson is a rambling agglomeration of grievances and self-pity.
His speeches started out in the bombastic jocularity of a player addressing a post-game scrum – "I thought I was a good guy. I had a few problems with fidelity in my life" – and then devolved into self-aggrandizing gibberish.
Like many people who've been famous their whole lives, Simpson is used to being listened to uncritically. He doesn't have to say anything interesting or even cogent. He just has to talk and people will gather around to warm themselves in his glow.
Stuck in a situation where words matter, he floundered. Several times, he entirely lost track of what he was talking about and simply stopped.
Maybe it's age or pressure. Or maybe it's the difficulty of a man who has never been asked to explain himself. Doing so for the first time is like learning a new language.
He won't have to remember it long. Nobody cares if you make sense on TV or the Internet.
Simpson will be out of jail on Oct. 1 and back in demand. Someone will pay to rubberneck into his ruined life, and maybe quite a lot. Trump's America, of either political stripe, has a limitless appetite for conspiracy theories and the pornography of tragedy. Simpson helped create the market.
Twenty-two years ago, before he was exposed, it would have been impossible to envision a man in his position enjoying a public renaissance.
Nowadays, it's more difficult to believe he won't.