Jim Brown’s Cloudy Skies


“Do you wonder … have you got a gray cloud following you around?” – Larry King to Brown, August 1999

If you saw him ply his violent trade in real time, you’d get it when NFL aficionados wax worshipful at the mere mention of his name.

An oft brooding fullback possessed of uncommon power, speed, intellect and toughness, he meted out punishment to many a would-be tackler, setting the new standard by which running backs are still measured.

But even if your only association with Jim Brown is his ridiculous stats or grainy YouTube highlights, you know his legend as a peerless ballerina/battering ram for the once proud Cleveland Browns.

Brown turned 80 last month. The years register on his creased face and a cane bolsters one of his two damaged knees; but the broad shoulders and fiery eyes remain – patent reminders of a nine-year stretch (1957-1966) when Brown rocked the orange helmet all the way to Canton.

Brown retired from football on his own terms, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and went on to a worthy acting career despite the overt racism that permeated1960s Hollywood. (Insert your own Oscar Awards slight here.)

But as with many complicated sports greats before and since, Jim Brown’s legacy is a study in mercuric contrasts: cruelty and compassion; bitterness and kindness; hedonism and activism.

Brown’s off-field image has for decades been clouded by accusations of misogyny. Multiple wives, girlfriends and sex partners have filed charges against him only to eventually recant. (Brown counters the accusations by pointing to his legal record, which in fact includes no domestic violence convictions.)

But Brown’s narrative is also replete with efforts to elevate the condition of people of color, as with the formation of the Negro Industrial Economic Union (a nonprofit aimed at promoting black businesses) and assembly of a stellar list of African American athletes in support of

Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection.

After moving to L.A. to pursue acting Brown witnessed up close that city’s raging gang wars, prompting him to assume the role of tribal elder and peace broker between some of the most violent gangs in the country.

This broader mission led to the founding of The Amer-I-Can Program, which has in turn evolved into a curriculum based on“life management tools” for schools, prisons and disadvantaged inner city youths and young adults. (The program receives generally strong reviews and has served thousands of at-risk participants.)

In addition to plugging Amer-I-Can across mediums Brown has been a regular on talk shows and in news bytes, often railing against black quietism alongside white privilege. Case in point a 2013 interview with Arsenio Hall in which Brown slammed Kobe Bryant (once removed from American racism because he was born outside the country), the president (Brown rated him a C average) and most of today’s African American athletes (spoiled rotten).

Publicly prophetic as always, Brown is said to have mellowed in his personal life, mending some of the many fences he’s rent since his college days at Syracuse.

But mellower or not, what we can say for certain about Jim Brown is that he has lived many lives in one – each with intensity and a hubris rarely seen, let alone sustained over six decades.

It’s hard to imagine such a soul finding lasting sunshine. But maybe lasting sunshine was never Jim Brown’s goal.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2016


Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652