No One Survives Unscathed

The OBR's Barry McBride on the latest controversy involving Jim Brown, where the legendary running back dismisses an invitation to to an upcoming ceremony.

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.

- Maya Angelou

It is more than four decades after he last performed on an NFL playing field, and we still find ourselves writing about Jim Brown.

Not long ago, the immortal Browns running back had the ear of Browns owner Randy Lerner who, after watching his Cleveland Browns struggle under his father's leadership and his own, ultimately decided to turn to experienced professionals to run his operation. Those professionals didn't have any room in their organization for Brown, a wild card with severe opinions and a tendency to voice them. So, out he went, and probably with some justification.

One can only imagine the collision the de facto dismissal had with Brown's immense pride. The conflict has played out in full view of Browns fans, thanks to Brown's own sense of self-promotion and media happiness when those boring Xs and Os overlap with fun real-life soap operas.

It's rare that there's uniformity among local media outlets, with commentators offering a common view around such a potentially divisive issue, but that's what's happening in the case of Jim Brown vs. The Ring of Honor.

The message to Brown from local scribes is clear, if hidden behind expressions of prevaricating respect for the running back: Smile and accept the plaudits, take the $100,000 the Browns offered. And, Dear Sweet Lord in Heaven, stop playing the race card every chance you get.

It's buried under a lot of words, but that's the message I'm getting, and it resonates with fans.

After all, this may be Brown's life, but it's our entertainment: We turn to football to help escape the financial and political pressures we deal with every day. The last thing we want to hear after deciding between whether to pay the electric bill or the mortgage this month is someone suggesting our favorite team is biased for offering to pay him a mere $100K for doing basically nothing other than being himself. Then, mix in a long string of accusations and courtroom visits around alleged off-field violence, sometimes towards women.

That don't play in Peoria. Or Parma.

Jim Brown has gone from unstoppable running back to easy target. But something feels wrong.

* * *

Driving to his college to pick my son up for a long weekend back home, I listened to ESPN's Colin Cowherd expound on his view that all local media tends to shill for their teams, sometimes overtly. Conversely, we local shills tend to think that national guys are essentially clueless when it comes to reporting about our local franchises. These things are often lobbed back and forth, even if the personal relationships are congenial. I've lobbed a few.

But, Cowherd's right, at some level, and has good timing. Here in Cleveland, the compromised nature of the local media is never more on display than during the pre-season broadcasts, where coverage from team-approved outlets (WKYC, WTAM, Plain Dealer, Official Site) is on full incestuous display, surrounded by ticket commercials and interviews with team personnel.

While there's something to Cowherd's accusations across the landscape of American sports media, but I don't believe this is just a simple case of local press shilling for the team and reflexively taking their side. In this case, even staunch independents in radio and the ‘net are wagging their fingers at Jim Brown, while being respectful and guarded.

Of course, skeptics would point out that local sports commentary about Jim Brown is almost uniformly produced by middle-aged white males, some of whose cushy jobs might be threatened by continuing efforts to promote diversity within newsrooms, and who are forced to pound out their commentaries without the luxury of time for introspection. None of us have gone through what Jim Brown went through.

But even that doesn't explain the uniformity of opinion. As of this writing, the OBR isn't owned by anyone other than myself, and I'm not forced to rush out commentaries at the behest of an over-caffeinated sports editor desperately in need of a hug. Yet. But even with the luxury of time to navel-gaze about my own opinions, and every effort I can make to try to see if I'm reacting to the racial side of this, I can't write off local negativity towards Brown as a product of race or lack of social understanding.

I suspect that everyone has simply looked at what Brown is doing, what he said in his well-publicized letter, and concluded that Jim Brown's just wrong. If he's trying to accuse the Browns of racism in his dismissal, he clearly is off-base.

But he's not the only one. No one survives unscathed.

* * *

When he graduated high school, Jim Brown received scholarship offers from more than thirty major universities. Syracuse University was not one of them.

The high school star was actually rejected twice by Syracuse for reasons that remain unclear, but we can have our suspicions.

Ultimately recruited to the Orangemen and financed by Kenneth Molloy, a former lacrosse star, Brown arrived at a school that at the time had less than ten African-American students, perhaps as few as three. Brown found a hostile environment where he was socially restricted, and where he was repeatedly told not to be like a flamboyant Syracuse alum whose only commonality with Brown was race. Brown's freshman coach seemed to despise the young man, telling him over and over that he would never succeed as a running back.

Jim Brown gives up. Jim Brown quits the team. He's talked into returning.

Within four years, Jim Brown is a legend.

"I resented the fact that they almost broke me", Brown said later, "that they made me doubt my own abilities".

Decades later, a university commission will investigate their own past and conclude that the program had suffered from chronic racism before, during, and after Brown's formative years as a young man on his own in college.

* * *

Something fueled Jim Brown. Something turned him from a guy whose freshman football coach would have happily tossed him away into the greatest running back of all time.

No one was ever in Jim Brown's category as a football player, and there's a possibility no one else will ever join him at the top of that mountain. He stands there all alone, after having set NFL records in just nine seasons and leaving of his own accord.

The proof of his greatness, the wins and the statistics he left behind, can only be matched through sheer stubbornness and longevity. No one has ever been able to replicate what he did and how quickly he did it.

Maybe some reached that pinnacle for a game, or even a season. But no one has done what Jim Brown did to the NFL, from start to finish.

Those of us who are too young to have seen him in his prime can only watch the films. Jim Brown was not a running back… Jim Brown was a force. He ran through, over, and by defenders as if they were almost irrelevant, mere receptacles for pain he would dish out. I envy those who saw the man in action.

After leaving football, Brown blazed more trails, becoming a film star, causing a stir thanks to a interracial love scene with Raquel Welch, and moving on to work with inner city gangs and focus on other causes.

He left a wake behind like no other, be it the shattered bodies of defenders, the gaping mouths of 1960s moviegoers or headlines screaming about off-the-field troubles. Jim Brown left behind him lawsuits, interviews, and served time in jail.

For good or ill, no one who creates an energy like this only uses food for fuel. Whatever powers Jim Brown, it cuts a massive wake through the lives of anyone around him.

* * *

Like most observers, I don't buy suggestions that the Cleveland Browns are somehow acting out of anything other than a desire for organizational clarity in reducing Jim Brown's role.

But that doesn't mean they've handled this well at all.

In my view, the Browns have blundered into this fracas with all the grace of a drunken bull, weaving and stomping foolishly through the china shop of Brown's emotions.

The Browns Ring of Honor is only overdue by about a decade, an idea pushed aside in Carmen Policy's quest to recreate the Browns in the image of the San Francisco 49ers, and subsequently through misguided attempts to avoid celebrating the team's iconic past in favor of their mundane present as a revived organization.  It's a shame that this long-overdue honor will be tinted by headlines of another nature. But it won't effect any of us who make our living in the real world, and we'll survive.

At some level, I have a hard time blaming Jim Brown for creating a cloud over a well-meaning ceremony. Whether you agree or disagree with Jim Brown, love him or loathe him, his pride and way of viewing the world hasn't radically changed in the last few years. The Cleveland Browns, and their fans, have had fifty years to figure Jim Brown out.

Did someone in the Browns organization really think that this man's role could be reduced to nothing, and he would show up several months later with a smile on his face for their Ring of Honor ceremony? Please. Fifty years. Jim Brown's history isn't exactly undocumented.

The new Browns organization either appears somewhat clueless at this point, or they've created a situation where Brown's goodwill will evaporate and he won't be able to influence the team's direction in the future. If the former, please crack open some books about our local sports heroes. If the latter, then, well played, I guess.

* * *

Jim Brown has given us a gift, something to go along with the records, the wins, the memories, and the film.

Do you celebrate Jim Brown the player? Do you think proudly of what he did on the football field, or, if you're younger, rely on the team's great heritage to pump yourself up about following this franchise?

Do you savor the team's minimalistic approach to a brutal game? I do.

No cheerleaders, no logo, no mascot. Running football. A reminder of what professional football - and this country - used to be. Power and hard work over flash and marketing. Football at its very basic, a reminder of a simpler time, or a time we like to think was simpler, before Vietnam, Watergate, when America was an unstoppable colossus.

Jim Brown was nothing fancy on the football field. He simply wanted it more, and would run you over if you couldn't stand up with him, or ran around you if you weren't fast enough to catch him.

It is simpleminded to think that we can take Jim Brown's accomplishments on the field and separate them from Jim Brown the man. The same force, in my opinion, powered both. We cheered his passion and anger when it gave us greatness on the football field, but want to wag our fingers at the same passion and anger when it's expressed in ways we don't like.

The danger of nostalgia is that it washes away the lessons we should have learned from the past. Brown doesn't come from a past with a better sport or a better world. He comes from a past where mistakes were made that we need to learn from.

That's Jim Brown's gift to us. He makes us examine ourselves, as we should whenever we bob around in the wake of a remarkable life.

No one gets out unscathed. Not Brown, not the team, not ourselves. Nor should we.


Barry McBride is a one-time useful member of society who decided he wanted to write about football. He hates it when his email client mistakes email messages for spam, so please contact him via the OBR contact form, via Twitter, or on the forums.

The OBR Top Stories