A few weeks ago, during a press screening for Spike Lee’s documentary Jim Brown: All American, Lee’s publicist approached a reporter and said, “Spike will be doing interviews,” and added, “Jim’s not going to be available.” The reason? That very afternoon football legend Jim Brown had been remanded into custody to begin serving a six-month jail sentence.
For those of you who have a little trouble keeping up with the sports section police blotter, in 1999 Brown was arrested and charged with threatening to kill his wife during a domestic dispute. After she refused to testify, he was convicted on a lesser charge of vandalism—he destroyed her car with a shovel—and sentenced to undergo counseling and community service. Brown appealed the verdict, and when the appeal failed, he refused to do the community service that was part of his sentence. Now the man who might be America’s greatest living athlete is in a Southern California jail, where he began his six-month sentence with a month-long hunger strike.
Greatest living athlete? In discussions of that sort—or those oh-so-fashionable athlete-of-the century/millennium/all-time polls bandied about a couple of years ago—Brown is a conspicuous absentee. But look at the record. Brown was the best player ever in two different sports—football and lacrosse—and you can’t say that about Willie Mays or Ted Williams. And given Brown’s awesome combination of speed, grace, and power, it’s not hard to see him ripping up today’s NFL, or taking a different route as, say, an Olympic decathlete. He combined his physical gifts with both cunning and courage. He made it a point to get up slowly after every play so that opponents would never know when he was really injured. And he was the last great running back who didn’t have to outmaneuver linebackers but simply tried to bowl them over.
As a cultural figure, Brown is far from insignificant. He wasn’t exactly Jackie Robinson, but he was the most prominent black player in what was then a largely white sport. He was an early supporter of Muhammad Ali and a pal of Richard Pryor. His turns in films like Slaughter, Three the Hard Way, and the creepy Fingers, while hardly Gielgud-esque, had a certain resonance both within and beyond the black community. That his groundbreaking interracial love scene with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles caused a near riot in a Memphis theater is enough to guarantee his place in film history. Indeed, Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance as a hardass cop in Training Day owes at least as much to Brown as to Sidney Poitier.
And while the lives of others at the top of those greatest-athlete lists have often had sad final acts—from DiMaggio’s self-imposed exile to Ali’s physical deterioration—Brown’s current predicament is maddening. A psychologist might call it recurrent self-destruction. He’s turned overreaction into an art form. You’ll remember that Brown retired at the height of his powers, as the NFL’s MVP and star of the reigning world champions, not because of an injury or even money. What drove Brown out of football is that Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell fined him $100 a day for missing training camp while he was off filming The Dirty Dozen. And Brown wouldn’t—couldn’t—back down.
And it’s happening again. “You cannot take my dignity. You cannot take my manhood,” he said at his sentencing. “Fifteen years, 20 years, 27 years Nelson Mandela spent to fight apartheid in South Africa.” The comparison would be funny if it weren’t so insulting. Brown may claim he was maliciously prosecuted, and even wrongly convicted, but he’s hardly a political prisoner. He had his day in court, supported by the best defense lawyers money can buy. If you choose to believe Brown, remember that he’d been charged on four earlier occasions with attacking women, and in two of those cases—including one in which Brown allegedly threw a 22-year-old woman off a balcony—the victim declined to prosecute. And even if you do believe him, there’s a larger issue at stake.
He made the choice to go to jail instead of to marriage counseling. If Brown wants to be a role model—and he’s made a business out of mentoring L.A. gang bangers—he ought to think twice about the message his actions are sending. When he defies a court’s ruling, saying in essence that the system is corrupt and racist, how is that going to play in Compton? And for that matter, at 66 years of age, with an infant son, you would think that Brown might simply find better ways to spend his time than in a jail cell. It may be true that Jim Brown hasn’t gotten his due as an athlete or as an icon. But Nelson Mandela he ain’t.