Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown spoke and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Dick Enberg served as moderator at Sports at Lunch on April 12 at the Hall of Champions.
- By Tom Shanahan, San Diego Hall of Champions
Jim Brown is 71-years-old now, and the man widely considered the greatest running back of all-time at one point referred to himself as an elder when he appeared at the Hall of Champions on April 12 for Sports at Lunch.
The reference came regarding the respect paid him by a young athlete, LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers’ running back and NFL MVP in 2006, upon a chance meeting in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium. Brown was in San Diego with his old team, the Cleveland Browns, who played the Chargers that afternoon.
“It was a beautiful experience for me,” Brown said. “This young man gave me more respect than any young person in my life. At the height of his career, he was humble enough to make me feel I had done something great. We exchanged ideas and concepts. I was hugely impressed with meeting him. He has an impeccable attitude.”
Brown has a controversial past, but he began taking on an elder statesman status upon forming his anti-gang Ameri-I-Can program in 1988 in response to gang killings in the Los Angeles area. Three former gang members who now work with him in his programs also attended the lunch event.
“For the African American community be as successful as it should be, we have to look inward before we look outside,” Brown said. “It has to look inward first. If we do everything we can for ourselves, we can make the greatest gain in this country. It will not be to identify the bigots or chasing bigots. A lot of people that are position to be helpful to the black community are not bigots. So we’re not putting energy in the right place.”
In addition to Ameri-I-Can, Brown discussed a range of topics subjects from race relations with respect to the Don Imus controversy, to the media’s coverage of the Imus firestorm, to the modern-day African-American athlete he considered overly influenced by the hip-hop culture and to the NFL’s shabby treatment of players from his generation.
On the Imus controversy, Brown said the energy of black leaders – he didn’t mention Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson by name – calling for Imus’ firing is misplaced energy in the black community.
“To me, if they fired him or they didn’t, it doesn’t matter too much to me,” Brown said. “But the people talking about Imus should realize after you bury him, what do you about the problems you have in this country?”
He questioned whether some people were exploiting the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
“The feeding frenzy is to me out of place and it is exploitive,” he said. “Imus has apologized 100 times. He had a two-week suspension. The deal is this: from my position, it doesn’t matter. I’m proactive; I’ve got things to do; I’ve got assignments. I’ve got great people working with me. We have to be business as usual. Our business is not to chase ambulances or deal with personalities on the air.”
That brought Brown back to his anti-gang message, where he believes more energy in the black community should be focused.
“You know what’s worse to me is go to into a neighborhood where young men believe they have a right to kill another young man,” he said. “Or go into a neighborhood in Broward County, where they have the worse school system in the country or a school where they don’t have books. That’s what bothers me. The things we have to do in this country take time.”
Brown related the media frenzy over Rutgers to the Duke lacrosse team. A year after three Duke players were charged with rape and sexual assault, they were declared innocent.
“Imus is in the news this week,” Brown said. “When he goes out of the news nest week, then what? The Duke lacrosse players were hot. Everybody got on a feeding frenzy. It was the biggest story in the country. Now if we approached this with more thought, we could have done justice for these young men.”
Brown compared the mindset of black athletes from his generation to athletes of today who are highly paid and, he feels, negatively influenced by hip-hop culture. Brown and basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell were among black athletes from his era who formed a black economic union to help the black community.
“In the ’60s, we had goals greater than winning the world championship, which were freedom, equality and justice. It was a time when you had quota systems and you were breaking down discrimination. A year or so after I got (out of college) we were allowed to win the Heisman Trophy. Some teams had to split up before they went south. There were collective issues of trying to find equality.”
Brown dreamed of what could be done with a black economic union of athletes with the income athletes make now from salaries and endorsements.
“Understand you have chance to bring in young black MBAs create a different ecomonic flow,” he said. “Put your investment dollars into something more meaningful. You can benefit yourself. Stop complaining, stop using the hip hop culture as your example.”
But today’s highly paid athlete, Brown said, has too much money and time on his hands and doesn’t think of a bigger picture.
“We didn’t have a $20 million bonus with nothing to do,” he said. “Most of us were college graduates who had spent four years in college, so we had the college experience. We had other things on our minds – like our future. We had the black economic union. There was a different consciousness. We didn’t have the gangster concept.”
This was when Brown addressed the hip-hop culture’s influence on violence in black communities.
“We didn’t have individuals in their own community shooting their own people,” he said. “This is a different generation, but human beings are the same. When we take the circumstances and address them properly, we can do a lot of good work with these youngsters.”
Brown said he doesn’t like the showboating modern-day athlete.
“This bragging thing is a different kind of concept,” he said. “I don’t understand it why they have to dance and shake. The best thing is do to give the ball to the referee. That’s what you’re supposed to do and come back and run another play.”
When it’s the black athlete celebrating, Brown drew upon a historical reference to slave owner Willie Lynch.
“The slave mentality was perpetuated by Willie Lynch,” Brown said. “He brainwashed his slaves because he he put in their minds what he wanted them to carry to the next generation. Every time I see an African-American in the end zone shaking his butt, I think of Willie Lynch. I think, ‘Why does a champion have to do a dance to call attention to yourself? That’s wrong, when African-American people are suffering.”
Brown said he won’t allow himself to feel like a victim, and believes that is a problem in the black community. It is part of his Ameri-I-Can education program.
“I’m an American,” he said. “I represent America. Some people misunderstand me. They think I should feel like a victim. I learned a long time ago that acting like a victim gets you now nowhere. If you look at America, we’ve had advancements. If you concentrate on the positive things, you can be successful. That’s what I tell my young men. You take it on yourself.”
Brown also got back to the topic of Tomlinson. After their meeting before the Browns-Chargers game, he studied Tomlinson’s performance when the Chargers beat the Browns.
“During the game, I studied his running style,” he said. “If they slant him off tackle, he’s got the vision to cut all the way back and he can do it without changing his stride. If he has the gap off tackle, he can do that. If he has to slow up but not break stride and go outside, he can do that. I said, ‘This guy has tremendous talent that God gave him. That quickness and speed and ability to run that type of play and utilize those options is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen utilize them. That’s a rare thing to see. He has strength in his shoulders. He has the ability to throw the ball. He has the ability to catch the ball.”
Brown also was intrigued that Tomlinson broke the game open in the second half with 129 yards rushing to finish with 172 and three touchdowns.
“He has the ability to be patient,” Brown said. “In our game, he didn’t carry the ball much in the beginning. Then in third quarter they turned him loose and he broke the game open. They were setting things up. I noticed all of those qualities. I looked at success of the team. This guy is a superstar. If he was selfish, he would interfere with the fact he wasn’t getting the ball right away. But he understood the value of what he’s doing.”
Another question for Brown from audience at Sports at Lunch was what advice he would have for Tomlinson. Brown said he wouldn’t offer advice, but he did have a suggestion for Tomlinson and all young athletes.
“Don’t take the world on by yourself,” he said. “Tie into a movement and be part of a collective effort so that your power can be maximized. By becoming part of something, you won’t take too much out of your life.”
As an elder statesman in the sportsworld, it’s a rite of passage for Brown to make suggestions.
“Everyone has their own foundations and golf tournaments, but only collective efforts make change,” he said. “When we do charity, we’re giving a person fish. Change is teaching them to fish. For a healthy community, we want to make change. Those of us in position to work with others, we have to realize we can’t do anything ourselves. But if we deal collectively and work in each others area of expertise, we’ll reach our goals.”