Jim Brown Was One of the Most Influential Social Activists in Sports History
Jim Brown was more than a great football player. The Hall of Fame running back, who died on May 18 at the age of 87, was one of the most influential social activists in sports history.
On the football field, Brown was the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his entire career. He played only nine seasons, led the NFL in rushing eight times, and was NFL MVP three times.
After Brown retired from the NFL, he had a lengthy film career and was one of Hollywood's first Black action stars with films like "The Dirty Dozen," "Ice Station Zebra" and "Three the Hard Way."
But Brown had lots to give beyond the gridiron and Hollywood, and his work in the community to influence individual lives and advance civil rights might be the most important part of his legacy.
Making a Difference Off the Field
Arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, Jim Brown was a different kind of activist and fearless in his efforts off the field.
In the 1960s, Brown founded what later became known as the Black Economic Union to help African-Americans advance economically.
When filming of the war classic, "The Dirty Dozen," began to cut into the start of Cleveland Browns' training camp in 1966, Brown was threatened with a fine by owner Art Modell and responded by retiring from football.
He helped organize the famous Cleveland Summit of 1967, also known as the Muhammad Ali Summit. Brown brought together Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and other famous Black athletes in response to Ali's decision not to serve in the Vietnam War.
Long after Brown's career ended, he continued to fight for social change, founding Amer-I-Can in 1988 to curb gang violence and educate troubled youth.
"I run a program called Amer-I-Can," he said." We've taught in prisons, schools, juvenile facilities and we teach in the community. We have the greatest record from the standpoint of dealing with grade point averages, disciplinary action and attendance in schools."
Like all humans, Brown wasn't perfect. He was flawed. He had some run-ins with the law over the years, including accusations of violence against women. He also said that he wouldn’t have followed Colin Kaepernick’s example in kneeling for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
As sportswriter Howard Bryant said, "Jim Brown was heroic, but he was no hero." Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation, who wrote the 2018 biography "Jim Brown: Last Man Standing," agreed with the assessment: "I think that's the best way to look at his life."
In "Last Man Standing," Zirin looked at the complicated Brown and his fascinating life story.
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 is the closest thing to a warrior Saint.
On an NPR interview, Zirin added: "He's always had this strain of conservatism in his politics that Black people do not achieve advancement through the politics of protest, but through the politics of earning as much money as possible, and trying to get out of the capitalist system whatever they can for the purposes of building economic self-sufficiency. And protest is an impediment to that in the mind of Jim Brown. And those have always been his politics."
Brown could have lived his post-football life in the gated bubble of wealth and fame. But he chose to be part of the community, with the people, an instrument for social good to bring about positive change.
"The power is between your ears," Brown once said. "The power is in your heart."
5 Thought-Provoking Jim Brown Quotes
5. America is a great country. It has a lot of work to do. The bottom line is it's easy to talk. It's easy to have the media pick up on something, and it's hard to have the patience to put something in place you can build on that will make sure each citizen has their equal rights.
4. Martin Luther King was a misguided leader. He worked to be recognized as the leader of Black America when what Black America needs isn't a leader. It is education.
3. Everybody does good things, but I'm talking about making major changes in the educational system that would impact an entire race. I'm talking about stopping these young gang members from killing one another. I'm talking about keeping prisons from overflowing.
2. What I want to do is play roles as a Black man, instead of playing Black man's roles. You know?
1. When you have a problem, rules don't solve your problem. It's caring and education.
A Legend Like No Other
Born: Feb. 17, 1936 (St. Simons, Georgia)
Died: May 18, 2023 (Los Angeles, California)
Position: Running back
Teams: Cleveland Browns (1957-65)
Career highlights: NFL champion (1964), three-time NFL MVP (1957, 1958, 1965), nine-time NFL All-Pro Team (1957-65), nine-time Pro Bowl (1957-65), NFL Rookie of the Year (1957), NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team, two-time NCAA All-American (1955, 1956)
Where does Jim Brown rank among the best NFL players of all time?
See other athletes who were influential social activists.