Reflecting on a sports icon that transcended sports and changed the way we look at athletes forever
One of my favorite sports documentaries is “The Last Dance”, the 10-part Netflix docuseries that aired in 2020 chronicling Michael Jordan’s final season in Chicago and also spoke to key moments throughout his career as a Bull. One particular moment that stuck with me was when Jordan didn’t endorse North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt in his run for a Senate seat in North Carolina. Gantt was an African American who was going against a white incumbent named Jesse Helms, who was a known opponent of African American issues. What followed is a now notorious line from Jordan where he is rumored to have said that “Republicans buy sneakers too”. The moment was a big blow to Jordan’s reputation in the Black community, but it also reaffirmed a key point: not all athletes are cut out to be activists.
There have been a number of players that have been instrumental in advancing social justice reform. Names like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Colin Kaepernick come to mind. This week we lost a sports figure whose name holds a similar gravitas when it comes to his achievements as an athlete but also as a civil rights leader: Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown. Brown was a hero, a demonstration of excellence, a vocal critic of the system, and one of the closest things we have seen to a superhero in the United States.
A Great Player and Pioneer
How we define excellence in our athletes can often change over the years. But the truly great players are unquestioned in their magnificence. Jim Brown was one of these athletes. His resume on the football field alone is staggering. He only played 9 seasons, and in 8 of those seasons, he led the league in rushing yards. He led the league in rushing touchdowns in 5 of those seasons. He was a Pro Bowler in every season he played, an All-Pro in 8 seasons, a 3-time NFL MVP, and a 1-time NFL champion. On a micro level, Brown averaged over 5 yards per carry throughout his career, which is good for the third most in NFL history today. Simply put, Brown was an elite player in this league.
Many will see that Brown played in the 1960s and will make the assumption that he was a one-dimensional back that might be out of place in today’s game. Brown was one of the few players from that era that would have easily fit into the game the way it is played today. He is the record holder for leading the league in all-purpose yards, a feat he achieved five times throughout his career. He hauled in more than 20 receptions in six of his nine years with 20 receiving touchdowns throughout his career. He had a versatile game that modern NFL franchises would be fawning over.
Not many players from Brown’s era are still routinely considered as the best at their position. Players like Johnny Unitas, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, and Deacon Jones are revered but have been eclipsed in consideration by players that have come after them. But at the running back position, Jim Brown still towers over players from later generations. He is the blueprint of the running back of every era. He was a player that transcends generations and one that is a mythological figure when one considers his impact and that he played for only nine seasons. Despite all of this greatness on the football field, Brown’s greatest achievements came after he retired.
Player Turned Activist
Jim Brown came of age in a very turbulent time in America. The 1960s were a time of enlightenment for many and a sense that change needed to happen. With the Southern states in the US still deeply entrenched in Jim Crow laws, Brown was a prominent Black athlete that saw this moment as a way to usher in change into a system that was fundamentally broken. He became one of the very vocal advocates of civil rights reform and called on other Black athletes to do the same.
In 1967, two years after his retirement from football, Brown was a part of the Cleveland Summit. This was a meeting with boxer Muhammad Ali that was intended to rally support and gain followers for civil rights reform in the United States. Ali was a bit of a pariah at the time, due to his stance of not serving the military during the Vietnam War. The presence of Brown and other prominent Black athletes was a massive moment in the way that athletes were looked at from a social justice point of view.
Brown would later go on to found the Black Economic Union to promote financial opportunities for black-owned businesses and the Amer-I-Can Foundation which looked to save gang members and prisoners from lives of violence. Brown laid the foundation of the modern social activist. He showed the world that it was not the athlete's job to simply play their game and entertain the masses, but that they could leverage their platform to speak out against the injustices that people faced in American society.
The most notable disciple of this was ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick took a stance against police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. This decision was a controversial one, but it also started a dialogue about a very real issue in modern day America. We have seen other instances of this. In the 2020 NBA Bubble in Orlando, players sat out of a game in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. We have seen players wear shirts, and even adopt other causes such as Reggie Bullock being a vocal ally of LGBTQ+ issues following the murder of his sister. These players have been empowered to have a voice and use their platform. This is a direct result of Jim Brown and the work that he has done to use his voice to effect real change in the world.
The Lasting Legacy of Jim Brown
Jim Brown was a true modern renaissance man. He achieved the highest heights of athletic achievement, made meaningful change for Black people in America, and even had a fruitful movie career in between. He was a fixture of Americana, and an ambassador of the game that touched countless generations of people as a gold standard of how to be more than just an athlete.
It is telling that in the days that have followed his death, countless former players have come out to speak about the impact that Brown had on them as players and as men. Brown is one of the few players whose legacy is felt by those that did not see him play during his prime. He is unquestionably one of the best football players that we have ever seen. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest running backs of all-time. But more importantly, he was a man that redefined the way that athletes are perceived by the masses.
He was a player that had strong beliefs and advocated for what he believed in to impact meaningful change. The great work that players like LeBron James have done socially do not exist without the work and foundation that was laid by Jim Brown. The greater football community lost a titan of the game, an innovator that all players emulated. It cannot be discounted that Jim Brown is a pioneer of the game, a player that meant more than football who lived a full life of accolades and reform. The football world and the American world lost a tremendous icon and we can only hope that the next generation of athletes continue to challenge what needs to be challenged in the years to come.