For all his athletic prowess, he brought to his social activism, Jim Brown’s power emerged from his steadfast resistance to the narrow definitions imposed by American society on its black citizens and, in his case, black male athletes.
The resonating power of no. That’s what Jim Brown embodied.
Brown, who died Thursday at age 87, lived a life that became a beacon of self-determination in the face of stinging racism. He refused to be limited by what others said he could become. He demanded to be seen in his entirety, as a complete human being, with all aspects of himself being recognized. With that desire in mind, paying tribute to his achievements adequately cannot be done without taking into account his deepest faults.
But let’s start with Brown’s life in sports here, his career as an athlete was truly unique.
In college at Syracuse, Brown dominated the football field as few others have. But that is not all. He lettered in track and basketball. And in lacrosse, he became an All-American and was considered one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
As a running back for the Cleveland Browns, he racked up mind-bending statistics. In his nine seasons, Brown never missed a game. He won three league MVP awards and one NFL title. His average of 104.3 rushing yards in a game is still a record.
The figures tell only part of their story. His style of play—aggressive, hard nosed and clever—put a prodigious demand on defense. He was not going to do the job for them. Instead of darting out of bounds as he approached the sidelines, he turned up and challenged defenders to bring him down, forcing opponents to tackle his strength, speed and 230-pound body.
He made a similar demand to America, resisting society’s impulse to flatten his humanity by refusing boxing. Such boldness ended his football career.
In 1966, while he pursued a budding career as a Hollywood actor during the off-season, he was filming “The Dirty Dozen” in England when bad weather slowed production.
This was an era in which team owners in professional sports routinely tried to dominate players. Such aggression, often falling with extra force on black players, was part of the reason most did not push for their rights. But Brown was not like most players. When Art Modell, Cleveland’s owner, learned that film delays would cause Brown to be late to training camp, he threatened to fine his team’s star for every day he missed.
Brown did not make good on that threat. He considered this such a grave insult that he decided not to allow Modell to profit any more from his services. He was still in the prime of his career at age 30, coming off an MVP season in which he rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns. But he refused to be treated like just another cog in the machinery of the NFL, which was rising to a new era of popularity in the mid-1960s. He called a news conference and retired. He was not being pushed around or disrespected.
Brown’s insistence on opposing authority went far beyond merely demanding it for himself. He was at the forefront of a wave of athlete activism that helped define sports in the 1960s.
There Brown, in the winter of 1964, the evening Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, met after the fight with Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and Clay, who would later become known as Muhammad Ali. The four men spent the night discussing ways to fight racism.
There he was, in the summer of 1967, calling Ali, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and other prominent black athletes in Cleveland. Ali had lost his heavyweight title and faced imprisonment for protesting the Vietnam War by refusing to join the army. Brown and others listened to Ali explain his intentions, and then showered the boxing champion with support.
Brown became a well-known spokesman for the Black Uplift. He founded an organization promoting black economic mobility, which he saw as a more powerful way to create change than street protests. He started the Amer-I-Can Foundation, which helps people in gangs and prisons get their lives right.
what a life. And what a statement made with that life. But there are no perfect heroes. At all times he refused to bow to power and for all his athletic triumphs, Brown was also a flawed individual. From the 1960s to the 1990s, he was arrested several times for violent behavior, including allegations that he beat women.
He was never convicted of any major crimes, but the allegations pointed to the problems that plagued him. “I can certainly be angry, and I’ve taken that anger out inappropriately in the past,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2002, before summing up the admission in a way that only underlined his faults. . “But I’ve done this with both men and women.”
Amidst the hosannas, the troubling aspects of his life should not be overlooked. Through his resistance, he demanded to be seen as fully human, with all parts of himself accepted, and that is how we should see him in death.