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Conscientious objector

Ex-NFL star Brown: Today's black athletes should do more

Posted: Tuesday April 09, 2002 3:43 PM
  Jim Brown was ordered to serve a 180-day sentence for misdemeanor vandalism after he refused a judge's order to attend counseling sessions and perform community service. Joey Terrill

NEW YORK ( -- Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, whose life after football has been devoted to grass-roots activism, says Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and others among the current generation of black athletes aren't doing nearly enough to help improve life in the black community.

"Money has changed today's black athletes," Brown said in an interview in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. "Those who have the ability as African men to bring a change in a community that so desperately needs it are concentrating only on their own careers, some charities and how much money they can make."

The 66-year-old Brown, who used his nine years with the NFL's Cleveland Browns and a subsequent Hollywood acting career as a platform to address racial issues, told SI's Don Yaeger that he was disappointed by most of today's black athletes.

"Michael Jordan would be one. Charles [Barkley] is talking about issues, but I don't think Charles is in touch with the community," Brown said. "They're all nice guys now -- don't misunderstand me. But they have the ears of the general public, they have the money, and they could call together 100 black athletes and solve so many problems in these inner cities, it would be unbelievable."

SI's Frank Deford
Curiously, despite all the tawdry, personal controversy that Jim Brown has been involved in with women, his reputation as a spokesman for more profound issues has never been damaged. In a way, it is the sort of bifurcation that always marked Bill Clinton's career.

Brown is a serious person. He has always been in the forefront of racial matters. Indeed, he and Bill Russell were the first two prominent
black athletes to speak up, and that they did so at the very height of their careers cost them dearly. But Brown has never been obsequient to popularity, and he is consistent.

His criticism of younger black athletes has long been a regular part of his discourse, to the point where he has himself been criticized for being behind the times, out of touch. But at a time when other blacks so often praise their best athletes without much qualification, Brown is a thoughtful, contrasting voice to listen to. 

Reminded that Tiger Woods has a foundation that provides disadvantaged black youngsters with golfing opportunities, Brown scoffed. "Can I tell you something? Everybody does good things, but I'm talking about making major changes in the educational system that would impact an entire race. I'm talking about stopping these young gang members from killing one another. I'm talking about keeping prisons from overflowing," he said.

"I'm not talking about teaching black kids to golf and get to country clubs. Come on! That's wonderful to do, but Tiger makes enough money that he could change many more things that are important to black kids than learning to golf."

In 1967, Brown rallied other black athletes in a public show of support for Muhammad Ali, whose refusal to be drafted into the armed forces led to his being stripped of his heavyweight boxing crown. Brown also organized the Black Economic Union, which SI says helped more than 400 African-American-owned businesses in the 1960s and '70s.

Despite his efforts to reform gang members and curb inner-city violence, most news about Brown in recent years has concerned his own run-ins with the law. He, in fact, spoke to SI from the Ventura County (Calif.) Jail, where he is serving a 180-day sentence for misdemeanor vandalism. The sentence stems from a June 1999 incident in which he was convicted of smashing the windows of his wife's car with a shovel after an argument. Brown was ordered to serve time after he refused a judge's order to attend counseling sessions and perform community service.

It was the fifth time over four decades that Brown had faced assault charges against women, although the previous four were either dropped or he was acquitted after the women declined to testify.

But the former NFL star said he is trying to learn from the mistakes of his past. "I have bad anger and I'll probably continue to have bad anger. I just have to not strike out at anyone ever again. I have to be smarter than that, smarter than I was."

Related information
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Roundup: Jim Brown surrenders for jail sentence
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