Is there a Colin Kaepernick without a Jim Brown?
As Browns honor the Hall of Famer with a statue, Brown speaks out on national anthem protests
The cry for justice during the opening statements at The ESPYS in July by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade and the symbolic protest by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick are all linked to the social activism of a transformative athlete in the form of one NFL great James Nathaniel Brown.
Social consciousness among black athletes is certainly not a new phenomenon nor one started by Brown. Injustice has never gone away but, for several decades, the response from athletes did. Before this recent reawakening of social consciousness among black athletes, there was once another time when it was common for black athletes to make a stand.
In June 1967, Jim Brown called for some of the top black athletes, including Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), to a meeting to determine how strongly boxer Muhammad Ali stood behind his convictions as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. It was determined that Ali was sincere and the group gave its support to the heavyweight champion. Just like now, many arrogant detractors demanded that these athletes focus on their individual sport. But Brown, inspired by yet another transformative athlete in Paul Robeson, always professed that he was a citizen of this country first, and rights and responsibilities come with that.
“Jim took an early position in his career on how he was going to be an African black man in the face of racism and white supremacy,” said Walter Beach, a teammate of Brown and a participant at the Ali Summit. “Prior to the Ali situation, he had demonstrated that on and off the field. It was Jim’s energy that led black athletes in this country to support Muhammad Ali.”
Brown’s community service efforts are well-documented. He created the Negro Industrial and Economic Union in the early 1960s to help establish black entrepreneurs. He also led a voter registration drive in the South, became a mediator for gang members and helped young men through his Amer-I-Can program.
So, yes, the stand made by black athletes today can be directly traced back to Brown, who is as steadfast in his beliefs for justice now as he was in the turbulent 1960s.
“Metaphorically speaking, Jim is the Nat Turner, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King in that particular venue when it comes to black athletes standing up,” Beach said.
It has always been difficult to stop Brown — a nearly immovable force as a college football and lacrosse All-American at Syracuse and as the NFL’s premier running back with the Cleveland Browns in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Brown was even more difficult a factor for the opposition as an activist during the civil rights movement. His determination for equal justice was laser-focused and unwavering.
But last month on a Sunday morning on the southeast side of FirstEnergy Stadium, Brown was a complete pushover. Fifty-one years after he retired from football at the age of 29 while on the movie set of the film The Dirty Dozen, the Browns honored the best player in franchise history when they revealed a nearly 8-foot bronze and stainless steel statue in his image as No. 32 with the ball tucked under his left arm, right arm cocked and ready to club would-be tacklers as he often did as a member of the Browns.
“There’s a natural feeling that I have today of joy and celebration,” said Brown, as several hundred fans and dignitaries gathered for the event. “This represents one of the highest moments of my life.”
And Brown’s life has been filled with many incredible moments. He led the NFL in rushing eight out of his nine years and was league MVP three times in that span as well. He set the league record with a 5.2-per-yard career average and he still holds the franchise record in career rushing yards (12,312) and rushing touchdowns (106). Until LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA title over the Golden State Warriors in June, Brown had produced the last championship for Cleveland when the Browns won the 1964 NFL title over the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts.
Brown, 80, maintained an acting career once he retired and he also continued his work as a social activist.
Kaepernick, who has stirred the American racial pot by not standing during the national anthem, had a recent conversation with Brown, who says he supports Kaepernick’s plea to create a discussion about racial injustice but he would not sit or kneel during the anthem.
“This is my country,” Brown said. “I’m going to operate in that way and the best way for me to make change is to be considerate on how to do it and how to work with others from both sides of the track. Slaves just weren’t freed by black people. Slaves were freed by black and white people — good people working together for what is right.”
And everything, at least on this day, was right with Brown, one of the few members of the College Football Hall of Fame, National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. Earlier this year, Brown was even named to the ROTC Hall of Fame. Brown was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the Army ROTC when he graduated from Syracuse.
Sunday’s honor brought attention to his mortality.
“My mind is not about my life now, it’s about my loved ones and about people as human beings,” Brown said. “It’s not about me anymore. It’s about if I can help a person have a better life. I often think I’m going to die soon because people are coming up to me saying good things, and that wasn’t always the case.”
The statue to honor Brown was apparently a good enough case for owner Jimmy Haslam and his wife Dee. It was especially appreciated by Brown because it was the Haslams who brought Brown back into the organization after he was unceremoniously let go by the regime under former general manager Mike Holmgren. Brown remained distant to the organization until Haslam reached out to Brown four years ago and settled on his current position as special adviser to Haslam.
John Wooten, president of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who played for the Browns with Brown, said his former teammate deserved the honor.
“This is the kind of honor you want while you’re still able to enjoy and be appreciated,” said Wooten, also on the scene in that iconic photo at the Ali Summit. “He’s in a great place right now in his relationship with the Browns.”
So after years of no major representation of Brown in a city where he had a major impact on and off the field, the Haslams decided to honor Brown in this capacity.
“It is pretty hard to argue with what Jim did as a player,” Haslam said. “ I’m sure you could argue with some various franchises whether he is the greatest NFL player of all time, even the greatest NFL running back, but it would be pretty hard to argue that he is not the greatest Cleveland Brown of all time. When you mention the Cleveland Browns, and I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Paul Brown, but when you mention the Cleveland Browns, I think the first thing that everybody thinks about is Jim Brown.”
The statue not only represents Brown’s accomplishments on the field, but it also represents the many layers associated with him.
“The statue represents my teammates,” said Brown, who was supported in the audience by teammates Paul Warfield, Ernie Green and Wooten. “These guys put a lot of sweat and tears into our success because I was very demanding and they responded. “
The statue also represents an often supportive black community.
“That statue represents all of us who lived in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood where Jim lived among us,” said Delvis Valentine, 55, an employee with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “He never forgot us. He always came back. He was much more than a football player.”
Added city councilman Zack Reed: “This is a fitting tribute to say thank you for not only what Jim Brown did on the field for Cleveland but what he did off the field for Cleveland.
“The statue says we’re finally appreciating someone who helped make Cleveland great.”
Love from the community inspired Brown, especially when he receives praise from the old neighborhood. He calls it the ultimate compliment.
“If you’re not accepted in the black community, you’re not accepted,” Brown said. “We had tremendous black consciousness in the ’60s, but when the money increased, black players didn’t feel the same way we felt about discrimination. They didn’t appreciate the need of being in the black community and how special it is to just hang out with black folks and how they’d have more appreciation for them.”
But one of the greatest days in Brown’s life is not complete without opposing views. The Browns’ announcement in February about plans to erect a statue received praise but also jeers on social media, in the comment sections on the local newspaper sites and was a part of the conversation on sports talk radio.
Accusations of domestic violence in Brown’s past was enough reason for many that Brown did not deserve a statue. Brown’s history of accusations of domestic abuse goes back to 1965 and through 1999.
“It’s fair to ask that question, because the things I did, I’ll admit them,” Brown said. “And the things I didn’t do, I’ll say I didn’t do them.”
Brown was never convicted of domestic violence, but a jury found him guilty of vandalism for smashing his wife’s car with a shovel in ’99. He was fined and sentenced to three years’ probation, one year of domestic counseling and 400 hours’ community service or 40 hours on a work crew picking up trash. Brown served three months in a county jail for refusing the court-ordered counseling and community service.
“I’m not picking up any trash, so I did my time like a man, period,” Brown said. “Whatever I was accused of, I stood up and I represented myself. If I’m accused of something, I’ll face it and if I’m convicted of wrongdoing, I’ll take the punishment and keep on rolling. That’s all I can do.”
Well, there’s at least one more thing the city can do in its adulation of Brown, after more than 50 years without any permanent public recognition of one of its greatest heroes.
“Why stop with a statue?” Valentine said. “Jim Brown needs a street named after him, especially in our neighborhood.”