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Jim Brown Should Be Seen Fully, Flaws and All


For all his athletic prowess, all of the heft he delivered to his social activism, Jim Brown’s power sprang from his unyielding resistance to the narrow definitions imposed by American society on its Black residents and, in his case, Black male athletes.

The resounding power of no. That’s what Jim Brown embodied.

Brown, who died Thursday at 87, lived a life that became an ode to self-determination within the face of stinging racism. He refused to be limited by what others said he could change into. He demanded to be seen in his fullness, as an entire human being, with all sides of himself recognized. In line with that wish, paying homage to his achievements can’t be adequately refrained from noting his deep faults.

But we start here with Brown’s life in sports, for his profession as an athlete was truly unique.

In college at Syracuse, Brown dominated on the football field as few ever have. But that will not be all. He lettered in track and basketball. And in lacrosse, he became an all-American and was considered considered one of the best to ever play the game.

Brown at Syracuse in 1957. The second Black player within the history of Syracuse football, he became an all-American in football and lacrosse.Credit…Associated Press

As a running back for the Cleveland Browns, he racked up mind-bending statistics. In his nine seasons, Brown never missed a game. He won three league M.V.P. awards and an N.F.L. title. His average of 104.3 rushing yards a game remains to be a record.

Statistics tell only a part of his story. His sort of play — aggressive, hard-nosed and canny — made a singular demand on defenses. He was not going to do the job for them. As an alternative of stepping out of bounds when veering near the sidelines, he turned upfield and dared defenders to bring him down, forcing the opposition to take care of every little bit of his strength, speed and 230-pound body.

He made similar demands on America, refusing to be boxed in, resisting society’s impulse to flatten his humanity. Such boldness ended his football profession.

In 1966, as he pursued a budding profession as a Hollywood actor through the off-season, he was filming “The Dirty Dozen” in England when poor weather slowed production.

This was an era during which team owners in skilled sports recurrently sought to exert dominance over players. That such aggression so often fell on Black players with extra force was a part of the rationale that almost all didn’t push for his or her rights. But Brown was not like most players. When Art Modell, Cleveland’s owner, discovered that the film delays would cause Brown to be late to training camp, he threatened to dole out fines to his team’s star running back for day-after-day missed.

Brown didn’t take well to that threat. He considered it an insult so severe that he decided he wouldn’t allow Modell to learn any longer from his services. He was still well within the prime of his profession at age 30, coming off an M.V.P. season during which he had rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns. But he refused to be treated like just one other cog within the machinery of the N.F.L., which was rising within the mid-Sixties right into a latest era of recognition. He called a news conference and retired. He was not going to be pushed around or disrespected.

Brown’s insistence on resisting power prolonged far beyond making demands merely for himself. He was on the forefront within the wave of athlete activism that helped define sports within the Sixties.

There Brown was, within the winter of 1964, on the evening Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, meeting after the fight with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke and Clay, who later became often known as Muhammad Ali. The 4 men spent the night discussing the ways they may best battle racism.

There he was, in the summertime of 1967, summoning Ali, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (the longer term Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and other distinguished Black athletes to Cleveland. Ali had lost his heavyweight title and faced imprisonment for protesting the Vietnam War by refusing to be drafted into the military. Brown and the others listened to Ali explain his intentions, after which bathed the boxing champion in support.

Brown became a widely known spokesman for Black uplift. He founded a corporation promoting Black economic mobility, which he saw as a more powerful option to make change than street protests. He began the Amer-I-Can Foundation, which helps people in gangs and in prisons straighten out their lives.

What a life. And what a press release made with that life. But there aren’t any perfect heroes. For all of the times he refused to bend to power and all of his athletic conquest, Brown was also a flawed man. From the Sixties to the Nineteen Nineties, he was arrested several times for violent behavior, with a few of those cases involving allegations that he battered women.

He was never convicted of a serious crime, however the accusations pointed to problems that shadowed him. “I can definitely get offended, and I actually have taken that anger out inappropriately prior to now,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2002, before adding to the admission in a way that only underscored his faults. “But I actually have done so with each men and ladies.”

Amid the hosannas, the troubling facets of his life mustn’t be glossed over. Through his resistance, he demanded to be seen as fully human, all parts of himself acknowledged, and that’s how we must view him in death.

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