The alert came across my phone from The New York Times: “Jim Brown died at 87. An acclaimed football player, actor, and civil rights activist, he was accused of domestic violence.” It was a lot to take in. I had spent four years writing a book about his life called Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, from which much of this article stems. As part of that project, I stayed at Brown’s house in the West Hollywood Hills for a week, and despite his age and health, it was difficult to imagine him ever dying. The Times alert showcased a fool’s errand in its attempt to drill his life down to 20 words. Here he is being called a civil rights activist when he opposed much of the politics and many of the methods and tactics of the civil rights movement. He derided civil rights marches as “parades” in the 1950s and then again in 2016. That was when he engaged in an ugly, public feud with Representative John Lewis, whom Brown condemned for questioning Trump’s legitimacy. By that time, Brown supported Trump, a position that I argued made sense given his politics, which were both consistent and complicated. Brown supported Richard Nixon in 1968 and spoke at Huey Newton’s funeral in 1989. What is not complicated is his treatment of women. Again, to break that down to only “was accused of domestic violence” does both the history and the survivors an injustice. Brown’s life calls for more than genuflection or dismissal; it demands study.
Football is the closest thing we have in this country to a national religion, albeit a religion built on a foundation of crippled apostles and disposable martyrs. In this brutal church, Jim Brown was the closest thing to a warrior-saint. Brown was both statistically and according to awed eyewitnesses perhaps the greatest football player to ever take the field. At six-foot-three and 230 pounds, running a sub-four-and-a-half-second 40-yard dash, he was like a 21st-century Terminator sent back in time to destroy 1950s and ’60s linebackers. In the gospel of football, defensive demons like Dick Butkus or Lawrence Taylor have carried some of that fearful mystique: transforming their opponents into quivering balls of gelatin. But on offense, the all-time great skill players have inspired adulation but never physical fear. On that side of the line of scrimmage, the list of true intimidators began and ended with Jim Brown.
The statistics that define his time in football are still without equal. Brown played nine years and finished with eight rushing titles, a level of consistent greatness no one has come close to matching. He was the only player to average 100 yards rushing per game over an entire career, getting five yards with every carry. Then there was the most impressive number of all: zero. That was the number of games Brown missed over his nine years in the league. It would be an achievement for a place kicker. But it was especially remarkable given the ungodly workload Brown maintained and the constant punishment he took, touching the ball for roughly 60 percent of all of the Cleveland Browns’ offensive plays.
But Brown was also more than an athlete even when he was an athlete. He was in many respects the first modern superstar, again as if arriving from the future. In an era before strong sports unions, he organized his locker room to stand up to management on issues great and small, never giving an inch and earning a derisive nickname from team executives, “the locker room lawyer.” Fifteen years years before Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for Black athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Brown was the one who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin. In the time before Muhammad Ali “shook up the world” by joining the Nation of Islam and refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, it was Brown whom Ali turned to for advice and support.
Brown was the first player to use an agent. He was the first superstar to successfully demand that a coach be fired and that released teammates be immediately un-released. He was the first athlete to ever willingly quit his sport in his prime, because his “manhood” was more important to him than enduring the disrespect of management. He was the first Black athlete to be bigger than the league itself. When players like LeBron James have leveraged their own stardom to assert their will on the direction of their teams and their leagues, it all traces back to Brown.