Race In America

Dissecting Jim Brown's diminished status after iconic NFL career

Legendary NFL running back Jim Brown died in May.

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No one in the history of the NFL had a more impressive career than Jim Brown, whose performance checked every box and whose extraordinary production and impact are further magnified by the fact he played only nine seasons. His retirement at 30 stunned the masses.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

Brown, who died in May at age 87, was a fantastic athlete but a complicated, even enigmatic, individual. His conduct could be inconsistent, even contradictory, and often unpredictable.

In the latest episode of NBC Sports Bay Area’s “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” we engage authors Dave Zirin and Arif Khatib to try to unravel the mysteries of a legend who left an indelible mark on American sports and beyond.

“He was an outstanding football player, but he was rather conflicted,” says Khatib, who 2000 founded the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame and knew Brown for almost 30 years.

Zirin’s book, “Jim Brown: Last Man Standing,” is an unflinching look at the legend, published in 2018 after four years of research and interviews, including a week spent at Brown’s home in Southern California.

“I really do believe that Jim Brown could have been even mightier than he was,” Zirin says. “But he had these demons. And because of those demons, the older he got, and the more society changed in terms of how we looked at issues like violence against women, in terms of how we looked at issues like male chauvinism, it prevented him from being a part of certain spaces where I really do think he would have excelled.”

Brown possessed the character, integrity and intellect to rehabilitate gang members, which in 1988 led him to conceive and create the Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change. As greater Los Angeles braced for reaction in the wake of the trial of police officers seen on video beating Rodney King, Brown invited rival gang members to his home and negotiated a truce.

“There are no words for how against the current that was at the time, for him to lend his authority and gravitas to that,” Zirin says.

Yet Brown over several decades also faced numerous allegations of assault, including some against women of color. He barely acknowledged the incidents, merely implying that he had made mistakes.

It was Brown who in 1967 coordinated what came to be known as the Cleveland Summit, a collection of 11 high-profile Black athletes – including Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – and one Black politician to address one of the hottest topics in America: Muhammad Ali being stripped of his championship after refusing induction to the draft on religious grounds.

The photograph of the assembled group – all dressed in coats and ties – was, at the time, the most demonstrative portrait of collective Black defiance ever glimpsed on American soil.

“I felt that was going to become part of history,” Khatib says. “And it did. And it is. Here are these gentlemen together making a difference, making a statement, quite frankly, that America is on the wrong side of history. They were there to help correct that. It took some real guts to out on a limb and make that kind of statement.”

Years later, however, Brown, even while still involved with Amer-I-Can, criticized Colin Kaepernick for peacefully protesting racism and inequality. Furthermore, when civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis was critical of President Donald Trump, it was Brown who came to the defense of Trump.

Though Trump’s campaign was supported by known white supremacists, including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, Brown blasted Lewis for “crying the blues.”

Jim Brown the senior citizen often was incongruent with the Jim Brown that existed for his first 60 or so years – the individual who earned such fame on the football field and projected such dignity that he kicked down a door often closed in 1960’s Hollywood: Black leading man.

“He didn’t seem to know what he really wanted to do, or what issues he wanted to support,” Khatib says. “I had great admiration and respect for Jim for his football days. He was the best, as far as I’m concerned. But afterward, I had some questions.”

Many others felt the same way. Between his reputation as someone to be feared by women and his curious politics, Brown diminished his status as a civil rights legend beyond reproach.

In the end, Brown’s football achievements – nine seasons, nine Pro Bowls, eight-time All-Pro, first-ballot Hall of Famer, retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher – were all that remained unscathed.

“Instead of taking that place as this sort of lion in winter, this sort of emperor emeritus, in his last years, he went after John Lewis,” Zirin says. “He supported Donald Trump. When that happened, there was a small part of me that had to smirk a little bit. Jim Brown is going out like Jim Brown.”

As Jim Brown predictably would, as he so wished, defying simple category.

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