When football legend and civil rights icon Jim Brown died at 87 years old on May 18, commentary about his life and legacy flew fast and furious across mainstream news outlets, sports journalism and social media. Much of the coverage mentioned—but often downplayed—the ugly truth that in addition to his incredible athletic achievements and later peacemaking work with gangs in Los Angeles, Brown had a long history of violence against women.
One of the extraordinary ironies of Brown’s life is that, according to sportswriter Kurt Streeter, he was a Black man who, in the face of stinging racism, demanded to be treated as a full human being who was “not going to be pushed around or disrespected.” But he allegedly did just that, and worse, to many Black women.
In fact, much of the sports world’s response to Brown’s death illustrates one of the more vexing challenges faced by survivors, advocates, activists, prosecutors, researchers and others in the domestic violence and sexual assault fields: the reluctance of people to acknowledge that men who are charismatic and successful in public—even those who otherwise might do good work—can be capable of deeply abusive and harmful behavior in private.
For women of color, this can be especially fraught terrain, as they are often forced to weigh the costs and benefits of “airing dirty laundry” about men who are important in the struggle against racism.
Brown was an enormously famous and polarizing figure for decades. At 6’2″ and 230 pounds, he was a punishing running back who defied the odds and never missed a game in his Hall of Fame professional football career. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest football players ever. He walked away from the game in 1966 still in his prime at age 29 after nine dominant years on the field and went onto an acting career in Hollywood. He starred or appeared in more than 50 films and was sometimes referred to as the “Black John Wayne.”
Brown was also a pioneer and an important figure in using sport to advance racial justice. In the 1960s, together with fellow African American athlete-activists Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), he helped develop a template for the current generation of sports stars to use their platform to fight racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.
Unlike most of his fellow activist icons, however, Brown occupied a more conservative lane in Black politics. He stood for Black self-sufficiency and economic mobility, and in 1968 supported Republican Richard Nixon for president. He was also often critical of the tactics and politics of the civil rights movement. According to The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin, he dismissed civil rights marches as “parades” in the 1950s, and called Martin Luther King, Jr., a “great man,” but disparaged his approach to civil rights as a waste of time.
Men who are charismatic and successful in public—even those who otherwise might do good work—can be capable of deeply abusive and harmful behavior in private.Jackson Katz
In 2016 he engaged in an ugly, public feud with the late Representative John Lewis about Brown’s support for Donald Trump. After visiting the president-elect at Trump Tower, Brown said “I fell in love with [Trump], because he really talks about helping African American, Black people and . . . that’s why I’m here.” Brown was also part of a highly publicized and somewhat bizarre 2018 meeting in the White House with Trump and Kanye West. As Zirin wrote, “Brown’s politics were both consistent and complicated.”
What was not complicated, Zirin wrote, was his treatment of women.
“To break that down to only ‘was accused of domestic violence’ does both the history and the survivors an injustice,“ he said. “Brown’s life calls for more than genuflection or dismissal; it demands study.”
Part of that study includes examining how social norms have—and have not—changed around the acceptance of men’s violence against women. As Zirin recounted, “Art Modell, the former owner of the Cleveland Browns, said in one interview, wise-guy smile in place, that Brown ‘got into trouble because of, shall we say, a rough social encounter with a gal, or two, or three.’ ”
Over the decades Brown faced numerous allegations of domestic violence, attempted murder, sexual assault, and terrorist threats to women. Zirin, who wrote the 2018 biography Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, noted that Brown often maintained that he had never been convicted of violence against women, which was technically true.
“But almost all the cases,” Zirin wrote, “tended to follow a script that was far too common at the time: Women, exclusively women of color, making heinous accusations against Brown, then facing all sorts of harassment and disbelief, and dropping the charges.”
The cases span the years from 1965 to 1999. As Zirin put it, “It’s a remarkable stretch that cannot be written off as just an endless series of law-and-order conspiracies, coincidences, or bad luck. If we are going to tell Brown’s story, it is irresponsible to not say the names of Brenda Ayers, Eva Bohn-Chin, Debra Clark, and others.”
Almost all the cases, tended to follow a script that was far too common at the time: Women, exclusively women of color, making heinous accusations against Brown, then facing all sorts of harassment and disbelief, and dropping the charges. … If we are going to tell Brown’s story, it is irresponsible to not say the names of Brenda Ayers, Eva Bohn-Chin, Debra Clark, and others.Dave Zirin
Gauging the Qualified Praise for an Alleged Serial Abuser of Women
Because Jim Brown was both a larger-than-life sports and cultural icon and reportedly a serial domestic abuser, the outpouring of commentary and praise at his death raises important questions about the meaning of accountability for perpetrators, the complicity of bystanders, and the responsibilities of the media. The fact that Brown was widely regarded as an icon of proud and defiant Black masculinity gives these questions an even greater degree of complexity.
Some of this complexity was on display in a New York Times essay by Streeter, published two days after Brown’s death, and in the comments section that followed. The piece is entitled “Jim Brown Should Be Seen Fully, Flaws and All.”
Streeter’s piece was mostly laudatory about Brown’s football exploits, the way he carried himself as the embodiment of Black manhood, and his lifelong activism in support of Black uplift. It did note his “deep faults.” Notably, however, it wasn’t until the final paragraphs that Streeter mentioned Brown’s shameful history of violence against women:
“What a life. And what a statement made with that life. But there are no perfect heroes. For all the times he refused to bend to power and all of his athletic conquest, Brown was also a flawed man. From the 1960s to the 1990s, he was arrested several times for violent behavior, with some of those cases involving allegations that he battered women.
“He was never convicted of a major crime, but the accusations pointed to problems that shadowed him. “I can definitely get angry, and I have taken that anger out inappropriately in the past,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2002, before adding to the admission in a way that only underscored his faults. “But I have done so with both men and women.”
“Amid the hosannas, the troubling aspects of his life should not be glossed over. Through his resistance, he demanded to be seen as fully human, all parts of himself acknowledged, and that is how we must view him in death.”
In the comments section, readers weighed in on the question of how to think about Brown’s consequential and often tangled legacy. I have collected some especially revealing highlights from that section, for three main purposes:
- to illustrate how difficult it is to bring men who abuse women to account;
- to provide examples of the classic tropes of minimization and deflection that domestic violence survivors and advocates deal with every day; and
- to furnish some anecdotal evidence for the idea that although (male) celebrity has often served to absolve abuse, this might be changing as a result of #MeToo.
A note: The sample size of these comments is small and subjectively curated. It is drawn from people who read the sports pages, which skews largely male, but it is impossible to verify the demographic characteristics of the posters: e.g. their age, sex, gender or racial identity.
Nonetheless, these comments can serve as one data point for a badly needed conversation about the degree to which public attitudes about domestic violence have shifted over the past generation, and whether victims/survivors have the right to expect more from the broader community in terms of its willingness to hold abusers accountable.
Many posters were generally supportive of Brown and downplayed his abusive behavior:
He was a great football player, great lacrosse player, and a great man who did more than all but a few in his position in an era when it was next to impossible to do so. Yet there will always be people who try to slander them because they cannot accept the facts.
Sure, there will be those who focus on his flaws. I will focus on his strength. Far off the field of sports, he looked this greatly flawed society in the eye and did not flinch. If we had Jim Browns in government today, perhaps the Trumps and Marjorie Taylor Greenes would not be so emboldened. It’s high time we see heroes for what they truly are: flawed but heroic nonetheless.
He thrilled me as a running back in Syracuse & Cleveland. He amused me as I worked on the set of “The Slams” in LA as a handsome mediocre actor. He showed me his worst as I worked reporting at his trial in Hollywood Superior Court. As a privileged white guy I need to factor in all the civil rights greatness before making a harsh judgment.
I love Jim Brown. He lived life as a free man. I don’t think he went to jail for any alleged crime. So why talk as if he had? We don’t know other than what he’s stated. I will always love the idea of Jim Brown.
Every male and every female icon when placed under a microscope will be found to have ugly warts. Let us remember his greatness and concentrate on that. He was an NFL all-time great but also a civil rights all-time great. I can’t think of another NFL player to carry both titles. RIP Mr. Brown, you were and are an inspiration to millions.
I’d like to think that the violent incidents were a result of (sub-concussive trauma) the abusive game he played.
There should be no ‘buts’ when it comes to Jim Brown. Tremendous athlete, humanitarian, civil rights leader, helping gang leaders to change their ways. One more thing about Jim Brown — He retired from football more than 50 years ago, but remained relevant in his humanitarian efforts. He was the real deal — no criticisms should be allowed.
Too often, we take the doing of good acts and assume the good from those acts supports a view that the individual who is doing it is good. The current climate of judgment and revisionism and banishment does not reflect the complexity of a human being. Given his increasing role as a social commentator at the time he was doing it, that reflected courage and strength just as much as throwing a woman off a balcony reflected his weakness. All of his facets should be viewed.
Others were far more critical of Brown—and the writer:
Kurt, c’mon. Problems didn’t “shadow him,” problems emanated from him. Shrugging off spousal abuse with the hackneyed line “There are no perfect heroes” is beyond weak.
I recently learned about Brown’s history of abuse toward women. My opinion of him as a person has plummeted. No excuses.
My thoughts exactly. I could not care less about football but I’m very concerned about bullying and violence against women. Why should he get a pass because he played football? Would he get a pass if he was a teacher or a factory worker or an accountant?
It’s ridiculous that people in this comments section are already jumping to call Jim Brown “flawed” or “not a perfect human.” Throwing a model off of a balcony is not a “flaw.” Sexually assaulting women is not a “flaw.” Jim Brown’s long history of violence, especially sexual violence, does not make him a flawed human being or a morally complicated figure. It makes him vile, reprehensible, and completely undeserving of praise.
Jim Brown the man is now gone. These comments suggest, however, that the meaning of his life—in public and private—is likely to remain the subject of debate for many years to come.
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