There’s an “Inside Sport” segment, a couple of years old, that follows Bill Russell and Jim Brown as they make their way around the country on a road trip they’ve made a couple of times, stopping in urban centers around America to talk to gang-affiliated young men about being young men of color in America and the responsibilities inherent in surviving this construct.
It is tough love, but it is love nonetheless. Seen from afar, it feels like it could be another feel-good NFL film, the self -congratulatory kind not uncommon in pro sports coverage. Up close though, it is smarter than this. Both Bill Russell, formerly of the NBA Boston Celtics, and Jim Brown, of the NFL Cleveland Browns, know that they may be a generation (or two) too old for salient conversations with these young men to have the same kind of gravity that a dialogue with Michael Jordan or LeBron James might have. Both men are aware of this, and though they don’t use this particular forum to call out Jordan or James, the viewer wonders….
It is clear both men feel like the inaction of these and athletes like these have cost black America. This kind of honesty is not unusual for either man. In their playing days, both men were often painted by the white media as prototypical “angry black men,” and both of them would have told you that this assessment, at that time, was on the money.
They were outspoken, proud, and the kind of men who owned themselves. They kicked open the doors for all athletes of color who followed. Theirs was an effortless-looking defiance that became some of the defining iconography of the nascent Black Power movement of the 1960′s. They didn’t kowtow, they walked tall, and right from jump, they scared the hell out of the guys who made the rules.
Especially Jim Brown, who walked away from the NFL at the age of 29 to work in movies after a beef with the Browns’ owner, Art Modell. Modell was upset that Brown would be returning to training camp late because of his role in “The Dirty Dozen” and decided to fine the NFL’s all time leading rusher $1,500 a week until he returned. Jim Brown decided he was his own boss and told Modell to go piss up a rope. To this day, Brown is the only rusher to average more than 100 yards rushing per game.
A few years ago, when LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland, I remember how pissed everyone got. I didn’t really understand it until I saw a replay of the press conference and remembered just how engineered and produced the whole thing was, how LeBron insisted upon jerking Cleveland off and trying to imbue this moment with way more significance than it deserved, referring to himself in the third-person and basically conducting himself like an asshole.
And LeBron was a native son of Cleveland. His message to his hometown seemed to be, “I’ve out-grown you.”
As I watched it, my first thought was: Jim Brown never would have done this. He played his whole career in Cleveland, nine punishing seasons. He left too soon, but he left proudly, with a greatness Browns fans could savor forever. My friend Martin Mull, the insanely talented painter and actor, comedian and musician, actually lowers his voice when discussing watching Jim Brown play. Martin is lucky enough to know Brown personally and is even more awed by the man Brown became after football.
There are people out there who disparage Jim Brown for his anger, his relationships with women, and the rumors of domestic violence. But know this: nobody can see into another’s personal relationship. I wasn’t there and neither were you.
The Brown I see is the one urging young men to walk away from gangs—to embrace education and responsibility and their communities. The Brown I see was also, arguably, the first Black Action Star. Every time I watch “Any Given Sunday,” I marvel at Brown’s natural ease and power. Even as an older man he moves with a cat’s grace and purpose. A smart director could have built any number of franchises around him.
Jim Brown could have just stacked his money and done nothing—played golf, opened restaurant chains, and talked shit on TV. He could have hit the speaking circuit and rehashed the glory days, night after night, finally giving America what it wanted: an angry black man tamed.
He could have.
Except that he is Jim Brown.