Opinion: RIP, Jim Brown, your legacy is mixed, yet memorable
photo by: Tribune Content Agency
I usually don’t try to “do sports,” as some of my newsroom colleagues might say. But I beg your indulgence as I try to pay proper homage to football great Jim Brown, even as I still try to figure out what proper homage looks like.
Brown, who died last week at age 87, may well have been the greatest athlete to put on a football helmet, although in too many unfortunate instances, he was one of the most flawed.
First, some flowers. On the field, as a running back for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 through 1965, there was no one like him. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he was almost unstoppable.
He was a marvel to watch as he blasted through would-be tacklers like they were bowling pins, fight for every inch of turf, drag multiple tacklers along or simply run over them, if they didn’t get out of his way.
“Make sure when anyone tackles you,” he famously said, “he remembers how much it hurts.”
Then, after leading the Browns to their last championship in 1964, he left football at the spry age of 30 to make movies. He appeared in more than 30 films, as varied as “Any Given Sunday,” “Mars Attacks,” and my own favorite of his flicks, “The Dirty Dozen,” in which he seemed almost to win World War II by himself.
The times were a’ changing. In those days of rising Black empowerment, Brown’s stardom rose like Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King, Jr., as an indisputably bold symbol of Black manhood and empowerment — and not only in sports,
“I hope every Black athlete takes the time to educate themselves about this incredible man and what he did to change all of our lives,” NBA star LeBron James said. “We all stand on your shoulders Jim Brown. If you grew up in northeast Ohio and were Black, Jim Brown was a God.”
That’s partly because, like Ali, Brown also pursued his own brand of activism in the late 1960s — and did it his way, with a conservatism that sometimes clashed with the Civil Rights Movement’s progressivism.
Most famously, he organized “The Cleveland Summit,” a 1967 meeting of the nation’s top Black athletes, including Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to support Ali’s fight against serving in the U.S. Army.
Although some of the participants, including Brown, reportedly saw the summit’s purpose as persuading Ali to accept a government deal — he would perform boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops instead of serving in the war — Ali refused to go along with such a deal and the summit participants stood with him, according to Ali’s biographer Jonathan Eig, among others.
In later years, he worked to curb gang violence in Los Angeles and in 1988 founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation, a California-based program to help disadvantaged inner-city youth and ex-convicts, which still exists.
But Brown’s legacy as a pioneering activist and athlete would shine more brightly were it not for his arrests for abusing women, including accusations that he had thrown a girlfriend off a balcony.
When he refused to attend domestic violence counseling for smashing his wife Monique Brown’s car with a shovel in 1999 and threatening to kill her, a Los Angeles judge sentenced him to six months in jail. Not good.
But, just as bewildering for many was his fulsome support for Donald Trump in 2016, followed by his denunciation of civil rights legend John Lewis, then a Georgia Democratic congressman, for calling Trump “illegitimate.”
Many wondered whether Brown had lost his mind. But, for those of us who had followed Brown’s evolution over the years, it was just the latest example of his long-running conservatism — in the model of such Black self-help leaders as Booker T. Washington or the Nation of Islam’s “Do for self” founder Elijah Muhammad.
In that spirit, it was not surprising to see the aging fullback sitting with Kanye West in their historic, if bizarre, 2018 Oval Office meeting with then-President Trump. Birds of a feather do flock together.
In the end, Brown’s legacy of helping young men “feel more like men,” as Ossie Davis famously praised Malcolm X, unfortunately fell short of helping women to feel more safe.
— Clarence Page is a columnist with Tribune Content Agency.