Jim Brown: an immovable fixture in American life with a complex legacy

100 Rifles is a spaghetti western that begs for judgment in its own time. Burt Reynolds smirks through his starring role as a biracial Native American hero. Raquel Welch, the full-blooded indigenous damsel in distress, adopts a horrific Mexican accent. But the thing that really offended sensibilities was Jim Brown getting top billing as the swashbuckling hero who not only gets the girl, but roughs her up in a squally love scene.

This was heady stuff for 1969, a time when Black actors could scarcely appear on screen with white peers without sparking a national controversy. But Brown would not be chastened by Hollywood’s open racism or Martin and Malcolm’s assassinations or Jim Crow-era laws explicitly designed to keep him in place. He was resolute, uncompromising, always his own man and the most intimidating presence in the room, to boot. If Friday’s announcement of his death at age 87 came as a shock, it’s because most figured the Grim Reaper didn’t even stand much chance of taking the football great down.

His wife, Monique, did not reveal the cause of Brown’s passing in her social media announcement. But one suspects even death approached with caution and surely did not catch him by surprise. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more immovable fixture in American life than Brown – on the field or off.

Spike Lee captures the fullness and complexity of Brown in his epic 2002 documentary Jim Brown All-American in painstaking detail. In one especially memorable segment, a former Cleveland Brown teammate remembers a nattily dressed Brown stepping off the team bus onto an ice patch, and fighting against physics for what seemed like an eternity before smoothly walking on. Quite simply, Brown was the man who would not yield – to convention, to consensus, to any force equal or greater. And it was his prodigious athletic gift that made him so mule-headed.

It’s the tool that provoked his breakaway from Georgia’s St Simons Island, cradle to a proud tradition of Black self-determinism and a centuries-long legacy of British plunder. It’s what won over the rich white Wasps of Manhasset, New York, where his mother worked as a domestic. It’s how Brown smashed through the color barrier at Syracuse University, where he quickly emerged as a generational talent in football and lacrosse. Three consecutive college lacrosse championships earned him a spot in the sport’s hall of fame.

Muhammad Ali, right, visits Cleveland Browns running back and actor Jim Brown on the film set of The Dirty Dozen at Morkyate, Bedfordshire, England. Photograph: AP

But of course it was on the NFL gridiron where Brown made his legend as a 6ft2, 230lbs locomotive that required teams of men to stop. And even then he’d never give them any satisfaction in a job done, carefully returning to his feet time and again so defenses couldn’t tell whether he was tired or hurt. He was as much a pain in the ass to coach Paul Brown, the passing game pioneer who was as much a prisoner to Brown’s five-yard carrying average as he was to the star’s insistence on living outside of his rules. Famously, the coach beat up on backup tailback Bobby Mitchell because he couldn’t scold the team star directly.

Browns owner Art Modell was just as powerless. When he threatened Browns with fines for missing the team’s 1966 training camp when production for The Dirty Dozen ran long, Brown convened a news conference from the film’s Elstree set, took to the mic in military fatigues and announced his football retirement in 1965. Mind you, he was 30 and the biggest draw in the game by far. He had just been named league MVP for a third time and won a long-elusive NFL championship. He was the league’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 career yards. Most remarkable: he set that mark in a decade when there were only 12 regular-season games.

Years ago, I reached out to Brown for a Sports Illustrated piece on the nobility of running the football after Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson had cracked the 2,000-yard rushing mark and flirted with the idea of going for 2,500. Throughout our hour-long conversation Brown was as serious and unswerving as ever.

When I brought up another 2,000-yard rusher who said he didn’t understand what his linemen were doing until after he was done playing, Brown ran to daylight; “Well, he was in the stone ages because I pretty much knew every assignment my guys had,” he huffed. When I posited that running the ball would become a decreasingly viable option as football offenses took to the air, he threw up a stiff arm; “The conversation about the run is a media conversation,” he sniped. “I don’t really buy into it.” When I wondered if he regretted not putting his rushing marks out of sight, he trampled right over my leaping logic. “I didn’t give a foot about how many records I had because there weren’t any records in front of me to be broken,” he snapped.

It wasn’t until I asked whether 1,000 yards should endure as the season baseline for running backs that Brown finally surrendered that wry chuckle of his that stopped in his tonsils like a great stone into a pick-ax. “You start with 12 games and then you go to 14 and then you to 16 games and you’re still talking about 1,000 yards?” he beamed. “Well, that’s almost embarrassing. Who the hell wants to get 1,000 yards in 16 games, unless you’re a one-legged runner?”

Jim Brown was among the group of top Black athletes from different sporting disciplines who gathered in 1967 to give support and hear Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War.Pin
Jim Brown was among the group of top Black athletes from different sporting disciplines who gathered in 1967 to give support and hear Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War. Photograph: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

At the time Brown was 77, and what little filter he had left had mostly eroded. But the cringiest bit to hear back now is why he agreed to our phone chat in the first place. “The only reason I’m talking to you is I have such admiration for Adrian and his family and I just think he is a tremendous kid and a tremendous talent,” he started. I doubt his opinion would’ve changed a year later, when Peterson was suspended for the 2014 season after being charged with felony child abuse for using sticks and belts to spank his four-year-old son. The blows left cuts and bruises all over the boy’s body, including his buttocks and scrotum and, years later, Peterson remains largely unremorseful.

Brown, better than anyone, can appreciate the wrong-headed commitment. Entrenched in the shadow of his towering civil rights and gang mediation work lies a trail of physically violent incidents against women that weren’t much pursued – a consequence that owes more to the time than to Brown outrunning anything. The most powerful interview in the Lee documentary comes from Eva Bohn-Chin, an ex-girlfriend who nearly died after Brown chucked her from a second-story balcony. In his autobiography with Bugsy screenwriter and noted creep James Toback, Brown asserted that Bohn-Chin invented the story to get back at him for an entanglement with Gloria Steinem.

Ultimately, Bohn-Chin wouldn’t cooperate with prosecutors, and the affair ended with Brown paying a $300 fine – his penalty for striking a sheriff’s deputy investigating the incident. The only time he actually got in trouble was in 1999, after taking a shovel to his wife Monique Brown’s car when a heated argument boiled over. That cost brown three years’ probation, a year of domestic violence counseling and 400 hours of community service with a $1,800 fine – but Brown, firm in his belief that he had done nothing wrong besides destroy his own property, did not give in and instead was sentenced to a six-month jail stint, serving half the time. Lee’s All-American captures much of this, too.

Jim Brown was a great many things: a generational athlete, a Hollywood pioneer, and a civil rights icon survived by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – the young fella in that famous Ali Summit photo-op. But Brown was also a flagrant misogynist and respectability politics-advocating conservative who publicly aligned with Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Raquel Welch summed Brown up best while relating their experience on 100 Rifles, which began with that groundbreaking love scene – a moment she remembered for its awkwardness and Brown’s overpowering machismo. “An actress is a little bit more than a woman, and an actor is a little bit less than a man,” she said while swiping at her scene partner’s technique. Brown was the paragon for an unflinching brand of masculinity that remained undiluted to the end. He too begs to be judged in his own era. Unfortunately for Brown, the march of time was nowhere near as recalcitrant as he was.

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Jim Brown: A Controversial Figure with a Lasting Impact on American Life

Jim Brown, the legendary American football player and civil rights activist, has died at the age of 87. Brown played for the Cleveland Browns for nine seasons, gaining 12,312 career yards up to 1965 when he retired, at that time the most by any NFL player, and retaining his record until 1984. He subsequently pursued a career as an actor and became involved in political activism. He was an early supporter of Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War and, following his retirement, focussed on campaigning on behalf of black and urban communities.

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