When I was a kid, the National Football League (NFL) was not the most popular sports league in the United States. In fact there wasn’t even a Super Bowl until the year I turned twelve. That game, won by the Green Bay Packers, was quarterbacked by Bart Starr, one of the two NFL players whose name I knew. The other football player’s name was Jim Brown. I heard other names mentioned as a member of a local Boys and Girls Club football league, but none of those players were bigger than the game like Brown and Starr. That would change within the next couple years, as the NFL grew in popularity, mostly because the league and the television networks tailored the game to the needs of TV and its sponsors. When the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts played each other in Super Bowl III, many more people in the US knew the names of the athletes involved in the contest. Some of those names, like Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, remain known today. So does Jim Brown, although his renown is not only for what he did on the field, (or even the movies), but for his work in his community and the Black struggle for freedom.
As Dave Zirin makes clear in his new biography of Brown, titled Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, Jim Brown could be quite contentious. Indeed, his obstinacy probably cost him a few dollars and relationships. However, it was also that intense pride that helped him become the athlete he was and propel him into the US national consciousness during a time when few African-Americans held any status in that arena. Zirin begins his biography with a look at Brown’s early life in a segregated and openly racist United States of America. The reader follows Brown from an early boyhood in the US South where he was raised by aunts to an adolescence on Long Island and a life as a high school sports star. Although Brown lived with his working class mother, it was a couple coaches who kept Brown on the straight and narrow. Indeed, it was one of those coaches who helped get Brown into Syracuse University and a walk- on role for the university football team—a team coached by an openly racist coach. Although the obvious discrimination and prejudice of the coach combined with the general racism of the university culture almost caused Brown to give up his hope of being a professional athlete, he stuck it out. Eventually, he became one of the best and best-known rushers in the history of the NFL.
That fame helped him launch a secondary career in film; a career that included a role in the critically acclaimed box office hit The Dirty Dozen. The combination of film and football stardom lent Brown a credibility not only among African-Americans but also among many white US citizens. Eventually, this meant his take on the civil rights issues of the day was solicited by media across the nation. As Zirin explains (and those who were around remember) Brown’s take was not always a popular one. He vocally disagreed with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principle of nonviolence and was opposed to the Marxist politics of organizations like the Black Panthers. Instead, like some other Black entertainers (James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr., for example) Jim Brown was a proponent of Black capitalism and the form of self-determination that brought. This philosophy, while similar to that of the Nation of Islam, was different in that it focused almost completely on the individual and not an organization. It is probably explained best by Brown’s statement, “When I march, I march alone.”
Last Man Standing makes one thing very clear. Brown was determined to be a man in a world that called Black men boys. This desire was one of, if not the primary motivation for the life he lived.
It made him enemies and it made him friends. Most of all it gained him respect and sometimes fear. That combination is what likely made it possible for him to accomplish much of what he did during his time working with gangs in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The fact that he operated in the same general elements of fear and violence as the gang leaders and their troops not only gave him a credibility with those forces, it also meant he could back up his talk if necessary. If one adds Brown’s powerful personality to the mix, the attraction he held for young men looking for respect and identity in a greater society that feared and hated them seems apparent.
It is important to note that Zirin has not written a simple hagiography. Indeed, he takes Brown to task for his violence against women and his egocentric politics. Brown’s understanding of masculinity was representative of the violent culture fostered by the NFL and Hollywood. It was also birthed in the greater culture of the United States. Even today, one sees this obsession with violence in America’s easy acceptance and defense of gun violence and domestic abuse. During Brown’s heyday, acceptance of such violence was both broader and deeper. Both men and women excused his arrests for domestic assault; to this day Brown has not acknowledged his part in the assaults he was charged with.
Last Man Standing is a portrait of a man driven by a deep pride and a desire to be accepted on his own terms as a Black man and an individual. This is not just a sports biography. Instead, it is the story of a modern American hero, whose human faults are what sports sociologist Harry Edwards says are important elements of what grants Brown his hero status. In a culture overly obsessed with sports—indeed one that involves presidents along with busboys—Zirin’s biography of Brown examines that obsession and how it shapes the way society understands its games and itself. Furthermore, in telling Brown’s tale, he also tells a tale of the US nation’s original sin—racism.