Though he is one of the greatest athletes in history, Jim Brown has always been much more than that. Even as he starred in four sports at Syracuse—scoring 43 points in one football game, leading the country in goals in lacrosse—and set the NFL career rushing record in just nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he tried to use his sports fame for greater purposes. Outspoken on racial issues, he rallied other black athletes in a public show of support for Muhammad Ali's draft resistance in 1967 and organized the Black Economic Union, which assisted more than 400 African-American-owned businesses in the '60s and '70s. As his football career was ending, Brown took up acting and became the first black action star, with leading roles in The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra and many other films. His groundbreaking interracial love scenes with Raquel Welch in the 1969 movie 100 Rifles shocked white movie audiences.
Despite all his laudable work in recent years trying to reform gang members and curb inner-city violence, Brown has always seemed threatening to some Americans. He has only bolstered that image with recurring displays of anger, especially against women. Brown was fined $500 and briefly jailed for beating up a male golf partner in 1978, and he has faced assault charges against women five times over the last four decades; in the first four cases the charges were either dropped or he was acquitted after his female accusers decided not to testify against him.
It was on March 12, as a result of his latest such episode, that Brown entered the Ventura County ( Calif.) Jail to serve a 180-day sentence for misdemeanor vandalism with domestic-violence conditions. Brown, 66, was arrested in June 1999 after his wife, Monique, then 25, called 911 from a neighbor's house in Hollywood Hills to report that her husband had smashed the windows of her car with a shovel after arguing with her. Though a jury acquitted Brown on the more serious charge of making a terrorist threat against his wife—Monique told the 911 operator that Jim had threatened to kill her, a claim she later retracted—it convicted him of vandalism, and Los Angeles Superior Court judge Dale Fischer fined him $1,800 and sentenced him to three years' probation, a year of domestic-violence counseling and his choice of 40 hours on a work crew or 400 hours of community service. When Brown refused to accept the counseling, Fischer imposed the jail sentence. Brown appealed—arguing that he had not committed an act of domestic violence and that Fischer had been biased against him—and lost.
Just days after he began serving time, a new 130-minute documentary about his life, by director Spike Lee, opened for a brief run in New York City. The film, entitled Jim Brown: All-American, will play in Los Angeles in mid-April and then be re-edited and shortened for airing on HBO in December. " Jim Brown is a complex and misunderstood man, and that's the type of person I like to make films about," says Lee. For the film, a wide-ranging examination of Brown's life, Lee chased down the central figure in one of the more celebrated events in Brown's past, former girlfriend Eva Bohn-Chin, a model whom Brown was long alleged to have pushed off a second-floor balcony during an argument in 1968. Brown claims the story is untrue and has said Bohn-Chin jumped from the balcony. In the documentary Bohn-Chin never says exactly what did happen, but she asks, "Why would I jump?"
Brown agreed to an interview with SI's Don Yaeger on Sunday at the Ventura jail, where the pro football Hall of Famer spends 23 hours a day in a 6-by-10-foot cell, isolated from other inmates because of his celebrity. When Yaeger visited him, a gaunt and weary Brown was still in the midst of a fast that began the day he entered the jail. During the 60-minute visit his eyes lit up only when Monique held the couple's five-month-old son, Aris, up to the thick glass separating Brown from his visitors.
SI: What did you think of Spike Lee's documentary?
Brown: I thought it was interesting because I learned some things by listening to what others had to say about me. Spike's a great filmmaker and is great at getting people to talk, and I learned a lot from what my kids said to him.
SI: What did you learn?
Brown: I listened to my kids talk about me as a parent, and I learned about things they wished I'd done and said. And I wished that I had done more of those things. They told Spike things they've never told me.
SI: You have made a career of supporting other black athletes when they needed it, and now a few of them are coming out to support you at a press conference on April 17. I'm told Bill Russell, George Foreman and others will be there. But none of the names I've heard are of today's generation of athletes. Does this disappoint you?