Jim Brown’s legs, ever-churning and sturdy as tree trunks, helped propel him to fame on the football field. His voice once he left the gridiron — every bit as powerful.
In many ways, Brown, who died Thursday night at 87, used his platform as one of the greatest football players of all time to fight for people very much like him: unsatisfied with the status quo, tired of the withering degradation of racial inequality and, ultimately, never easy to shoehorn into one single, tidy category.
Brown was an activist who sat alongside Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali and was on par with Olympic fist-raisers Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Brown was a punishing, once-in-a-lifetime running back who saw more in his journey than football and the cutthroat business it was becoming.
He was a fighter for poor minorities, abhorring the gang violence that had taken over in his adopted home of Los Angeles and working for decades to help disadvantaged inner-city kids.
Even at the height of his activism, Brown was not, in any way, a conformist.
“When many of us were protesting, Jim was willing to say, ‘I understand the protest. I don’t always agree with it,'” said Dr. Harry Edwards, the longtime civil rights activist who has been close with virtually all the black sports leaders of the ’60s, including Brown. “He didn’t agree with demonstrations during the anthem because he was a product of ROTC at Syracuse. But he always understood the protest, and he asked the fundamental question, ‘What are you going to do?’”
Some detractors point toward Brown’s half-hearted embrace of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, or his meeting with Donald Trump and Kanye West at the White House, as reasons the football legend might not belong on the Mount Rushmore of social activist sports stars.
Brown explained it all — explanations that have made sense to some of those willing to take the time to listen. But he has never much cared about catering to his critics, just as he didn’t much listen to what some thought about the African kufi he wore for years, or get too invested in what outsiders thought of the remorse he expressed for a series of domestic-violence episodes that checkered his past.
Far from perfect, Brown still goes down as one the few who were willing to risk their reputations, to say nothing of the endorsements and adulation from the public, to pursue a cause in the turbulent ‘60s and ’70s and beyond.
His surge onto the social-activism stage came June 4, 1967, at a meeting now known as “The Cleveland Summit.” Retired for two years, Brown summoned a half-dozen NFL players along with Russell and Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to meet with Ali and discuss the boxer’s decision to not report for duty after being drafted for the Vietnam War.
The arguments at the summit are more nuanced than they are described in many reminisces written decades later. Brown and most of those with him didn’t agree with Ali’s decision to become a conscientious objector. After hearing him out, though, they backed him during a news conference that produced a photo of Ali, flanked by Alcindor, Brown, Russell and the rest; Edwards believes the photo is one of the most important of the 20th century.
“The backlash was not going to be any worse than the discrimination we were going through,” Brown said of the summit, in an interview that aired in 2019. “And the fact that if we didn’t stand up, nothing would happen. So, basically you had no choice. If you had any power, you had to use that power.”
Brown would later shift to an economic focus, helping poor Black kids by supporting a number of community-based programs. In 1988, he established Amer-I-Can, a foundation that seeks to tackle a myriad of problems, from gaps in the educational system to gang violence and poor housing.
Edwards says Brown made it a point of keeping the front door of his LA house unlocked and inviting gang members to take a break there if they needed one.
“And nobody ever stole a thing, nobody ever broke a thing,” Edwards said. “That was the level of respect.”
Brown’s turns as athlete, activist and actor were inextricably intertwined. In 1966, he landed a part in the star-studded hit, “The Dirty Dozen,” which hit snags in production and forced the running back to miss part of training camp. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell fined Brown $1,500 for every day he missed, but the running back, who had already vowed that 1966 would be his last season, quit before the season instead.
Most of his contemporaries felt Brown had plenty of years, and yards, left in his Hall-of-Fame legs at that point. Brown decided to leave while he was still relatively healthy. It was a considered a radical move back then, but thanks to his precedent, it’s no longer unheard of. (Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson and Andrew Luck come to mind).
“He didn’t play football out of a mad obsession with the game,” Edwards said. “He made it very clear, ‘I played football for respect.’”
He broke barriers on the screen, as well. The 1969 Western “100 Rifles” was, overall, unmemorable except for Brown and Raquel Welch’s roles as the couple in the first interracial love scene in a Hollywood movie. Years later, Welch said the scene was difficult because “Brown was very forceful and I am feisty. … But — it turned out to be great exploitation for the film, now as you look back. It broke new ground.”
One of Brown’s most memorable TV appearances was a 1970 guest spot on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Seated next to Georgia’s segregationist governor Lester Maddox, who was espousing all he’d done for the Black citizens of Georgia during his term, Brown asked the governor a question: “Do you have any problems … from the white bigots in the South because you did so much for the Black man?”
It triggered a tense argument between Cavett and Maddox that ended with the governor storming off the set while Brown sat back and bemusedly watched the fireworks he had set off.
Whether on screen or on gridiron, Brown knew how to deliver good theatre. Nobody, however, would mistake him as simply an entertainer.
“I think you have to do many things and enjoy quality of life,” Brown said in a 1999 interview on ESPN. “And most of all, put something back into this society that put something in you.”
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