Sunday, June 10, 2007

Can you picture this guy reading "Self Matters"?

I'd planned to take the weekend off from blogging, but Jim Brown just wouldn't let me.

See, there's an article about Brown in the current issue of ESPN—that's Jim Brown, legendary NFL running back, not to be confused with the late James "Godfather of Soul" Brown, legendary R&B star, or James "J.B." Brown, the not-quite-legendary-but-still-well-known sports commentator. (To make things even more confusing, the latter Brown anchors CBS' pre-, half-time and post-game coverage of NFL football.)

The ESPN piece details Brown's disenchantment with sports stars like Michael Jordan and now LeBron "King" James, both of whom seem more than willing to take the money and run, using their celebrity to pitch underwear and bubble gum while abdicating the broader social roles that Brown feels they have. For the record, Brown walked the walk, and he walked it proudly and defiantly, turning his back on much of the payday he could've had. Faced with a situation that, he felt, would've required him to kiss team owner Art Modell's ass, he left football at the height of his astonishing career. And when you're talking about the kinds of numbers put up by Jim Brown, astonishing isn't just a convenient word to throw around. There are sports savants who consider Brown not only the "greatest running back ever" (to quote ESPN's writer, Dan LeBatard), but the single best player ever.

Though he did parlay his fame into a few plum movie roles—notably in The Dirty Dozen—Brown, who probably could've remade himself as a major Hollywood action star, instead spent most of his post-NFL life as a political activist and social critic. He relentlessly agitated for more jobs for blacks and minorities, and appointed himself a mediator in the turf wars among L.A. street gangs back when it was not yet cool to do such things. While the Al Sharptons were calling press conferences, Brown was marching himself into city halls and corporate boardrooms, pushing for improvements in urban neighborhoods. Then again, Brown never had quite as many post-football options available to him as do guys like Jordan, because he wasn't exactly Madison Avenue's ideal image of a spokesperson. By all accounts one of the toughest men ever to don a football jersey, Brown wore the same persona off the field. To this day, in fact, at age 71, he impresses you as the kind of guy who could walk into a bar fight in the worst section of downtown and quickly send any five of the surliest dudes to the ER. Jim Brown was Big Bad Leroy Brown—without the comeuppance at the end of the song.

Further eroding Brown's salability were his disordered personal affairs, in particular the troubling reports about his abuse of the women in his life, which surfaced throughout his career and generated headlines as big as his on-field achievements. These included separate incidents where he took a shovel to his wife's car and allegedly threw a female companion off a balcony. (The woman, a young model, did not press charges in the end, and Brown continues to dispute that it ever happened.)

Indeed, it has sometimes seemed that Brown was simply bent on alienating everyone. When he wasn't venting his feelings about his race's* treatment at the hands of white America, he was calling out prominent blacks whom he felt had lost touch with the black experience (this, long before the current piece in ESPN). A few years ago he came very close to using the words uncle and Tom in the same sentence in critiquing Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' Gucci gangster lifestyle. He suggested that Combs should spend less time partying in Malibu and more time TCOB on behalf of "the community."

So what do we finally have in Jim Brown? A man who crusades against one kind of violence...but shows an inability to contain his own rage. A man who talks about the athlete's responsibilities as a role model...while at times seeming to forget the impact his own actions may have on impressionable young people. I don't think the word hypocrite applies, because there's nothing Jim Brown urges others to do that he hasn't done himself, often at great personal sacrifice. It's just that, well, there are all those inconsistencies. Maybe what we have in Jim Brown is an object lesson in just how complex human beings are. Forgive the pun, which is decidedly unintentional, but Jim Brown reminds us that when you're talking about personality, nothing is black or white. There is good and bad in all of us, and maybe sometimes we have to take the bad as the price of getting the good.** I believe that Jim Brown's intentions have always been honorable, at least in his own mind. It's just, sometimes the demons got the best of him.

But like him or not, admire him or not, Jim Brown, throughout the half-century of his life in the public eye, has been an individual—a True Self. Is he fully actualized? I don't know. But he's a guy who did, not just talked, and who did it his way, period. In today’s world of clones and poseurs, maybe that alone has to count for something.

* Let me be clear, here, in that I am simply writing this from Brown's point of view, and yielding to the "conventions of the day." As regular readers know, I am not a big believer in identity politics.
** Also, to be clear: Domestic violence, especially the man-on-woman kind, is abhorrent, and in no way tolerable. I'm just saying that in making overall, after-the-fact judgments about some people in some settings, perhaps it is not totally out of bounds to look at the Big Picture. I know many women who hate adultery in concept, but would give almost anything to have Bill Clinton back in office because of the overall enlightenment of his stance on women's issues, from their POV.


Cal said...


There is a slight correction. James "J.B." Brown left Fox Sports in '06 and is now the host of the NFL on CBS show.

I think Jim Brown, despite his flaws, is more of a role model for young urban kids than any athlete these kids have today. And if you know his history (which I'm sure you do), I understand he was just as great a lacrosse player, which is almost unfathomable to me because of the period of time when he was in college (i.e, the 1950s). But his problems with women are well-documented. I remember having arguments with a friend in the early '90s who thought most of the accusations were bunk, but I disagreed.

On a related note, there was a guy I knew peripherally in college who wrote a biography of Jim Brown that was published in the last year. I told a friend that was a project I wish I could have done because of all of the stuff I would have learned about football, the '60s, etc. from Jim Brown.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, thanks for your thoughts (again--you'd disappeared for a while there), and for the correct re JB. This is what happens when you try to whip these things up a little TOO fast. (Which also explains why I've taken so long with the horror stories.) Glad to have you back.

Btw, Brown was also offered a minor-league baseball contract, but turned it down. I've always thought of him as more of a football type, anyway.