FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Jim Brown: Superstar/Superman

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 StandingJim 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.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

January 16, 2019
Patrick Bond
Jim Yong Kim’s Mixed Messages to the World Bank and the World
John Grant
Joe Biden, Crime Fighter from Hell
Alvaro Huerta
Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Kenneth Surin
A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons
Elizabeth Henderson
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, Bolton and the Syrian Confusion
Jeff Mackler
Trump’s Syria Exit Tweet Provokes Washington Panic
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: When Just One Man Says, “No”
Cesar Chelala
Violence Against Women: A Pandemic No Longer Hidden
Kim C. Domenico
To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom
Dave Lindorff
Criminalizing BDS Trashes Free Speech & Association
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: The Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Two
Edward Curtin
A Gentrified Little Town Goes to Pot
January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
Vijay Prashad
5.5 Million Women Build Their Wall
Nicky Reid
Lessons From Rojava
Ted Rall
Here is the Progressive Agenda
Robert Koehler
A Green Future is One Without War
Gary Leupp
The Chickens Come Home to Roost….in Northern Syria
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: “The Country Is Watching”
Sam Gordon
Who Are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists?
Weekend Edition
January 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Richard Moser
Neoliberalism: Free Market Fundamentalism or Corporate Power?
Paul Street
Bordering on Fascism: Scholars Reflect on Dangerous Times
Joseph Majerle III – Matthew Stevenson
Who or What Brought Down Dag Hammarskjöld?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
How Tre Arrow Became America’s Most Wanted Environmental “Terrorist”
Andrew Levine
Dealbreakers: The Democrats, Trump and His Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail