Jim Brown's strength came from his refusal to accept the narrow definitions of American society that were imposed on Black Americans and in Jim Brown's case, Black male sportsmen.
No is a powerful word. Jim Brown was a personification of this.
Brown, who passed away on Thursday aged 87, led a life which became a symphony of self-determination against stinging racism. He refused to limit himself by what other people said he was capable of becoming. He wanted to be recognized in all his glory, as an entire human being with all of his sides. To honor his achievements, it is not possible to do so without mentioning his faults.
Brown's career as a sportsman was unique.
Brown was the first to dominate football in college, at Syracuse. That's not all. He also lettered for track and basketball. In lacrosse he was an All-American, and he was considered to be one of the best players in the history of the sport.
He accumulated staggering statistics as a runningback for the Cleveland Browns. Brown missed no games in his nine-year career. He was named league MVP three times. It is still a world record that he averages 104.3 rushing yard per game.
Stats tell only a part of the story. His aggressive, hard-nosed, and shrewd style of play made defenses work harder. He wasn't going to do it for them. He did not step out of bounds as he approached the sideline. Instead, he turned and challenged the defenders to take him down. This forced the opponents to use all of his speed, strength and 230 pound body.
He refused to be boxed in and resisted the society's urge to flatten his humanism. His football career was ended by his boldness.
He was in England filming "The Dirty Dozen" when bad weather caused production to be slowed.
It was an era when team owners of professional sports sought to dominate players. The fact that Black players were often subjected to extra-violent aggression was one of the reasons why most didn't fight for their rights. Brown, however, was different from most players. Art Modell, Cleveland owner, was informed that Brown would be late for training camp due to film delays. He threatened to fine Brown every day he missed.
Brown was not happy with this threat. He considered this an insult that was so serious that he refused to allow Modell any more benefit from his services. At 30, he was still in his prime career, coming off a M.V.P. He had run for 1,544 yard and 17 touchdowns in a season. He refused to be treated as just another cog of the N.F.L. machinery, which was gaining popularity in the mid-1960s. He held a press conference and announced his retirement. He would not be disrespected or pushed around.
Brown's refusal to submit to power went beyond a desire for his own benefit. He was at forefront of the athlete activism wave that helped define sport in the 1960s.
Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, met after the fight in winter 1964. The four men spent a night talking about how to best combat racism.
In the summer of 1967 he summoned Ali, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, (the future Kareem Ab-Jabbar) as well as other prominent Black athletes, to Cleveland. Ali was facing imprisonment and losing his heavyweight championship for refusing to join the military in protest of the Vietnam War. Brown and his friends listened as Ali explained his intentions and then showered the boxing champ in support.
Brown became an internationally recognized spokesperson for Black empowerment. He created an organization that promotes Black economic mobility. This was his way of making a change, as he believed it to be more effective than protesting on the streets. He founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation to help people who are in gangs or prisons get their lives straightened out.
What a life. What a life. There are no heroes who are perfect. Brown, despite his refusal to bow to authority and all of the athletic victories he achieved, was a flawed person. He was arrested for violent behavior several times between the 1960s and 1990s. Some of these cases involved allegations that he abused women.
The accusations were not true, but they did reveal his problems. He told Sports Illustrated that he was a man who could get angry and that he had acted inappropriately on occasion. "But I've done it with men and women."
The troubling aspects of his story should not be swept aside in the midst of the hosannas. In his resistance he demanded that he be recognized as a fully human being, with all of his parts acknowledged. This is how we should view him at death.