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Books | Sports

April 30, 2007

Jim Brown: Hall of Famer, Activist, Abuser

Biographer Mike Freeman attempts to understand and explain the football legend, civil-rights activist, and study in contrasts.

Elizabeth Guenard

Mike Freeman's new book, Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero, reconstructs the tumultuous history of a football legend. Brown began his athletic career playing football in Manhasset, New York, on a concrete turf littered with broken glass. He emerged an amazing all-around athlete.

Mike Freeman/Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union
"He should be remembered as a great man with great flaws. Most of all, he should be remembered as the most unique athlete to ever live."

Mike Freeman/Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Brown's brief career with the Cleveland Browns put him in the Hall of Fame, but it was his embrace of an identity as a civil-rights activist in the face of rabid discrimination that set him apart from many other contemporary black athletes. His activism, including the creation of the Black Economic Union, drew the attention of the FBI—beginning a monumental investigation that would follow his every move for most of his life. Jim Brown's private life was less admirable. Domestic violence, battery, and rape charges shadowed Brown's reputation.

Freeman's work provides a new look into the complex life of this football hero, based on interviews with Brown's teammates, coaches, friends, and enemies, along with ex-FBI agents who investigated of Brown. Freeman also combed through thousands of pages of recently disclosed FBI files of the case.

In the following interview—conducted by email, and edited for clarity—Freeman, a columnist for CBS SportsLine, talks about the book, what Brown thought of it and why there's no present-day analogue to his subject. (Also, you can hear Freeman and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, May 2, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What made you want to write this biography? Was Jim Brown misrepresented in the past? If so, how do you feel you've set the record straight?

Mike Freeman: I wrote this because I enjoy writing about complex and fascinating people and he certainly fits the bill. There has never been an athlete quite like Jim Brown—for both positive and negative reasons—and he was a natural for me to write about. It's not much more complex than that. Previously I wrote a book about a powerful sports network and the women heroes inside of it that battled sexual harassment [ESPN: The Uncensored History], and after that a book about the NFL which featured an interview with an active gay player [Bloody Sundays]. I like challenges, and this was just another challenge.

GM: What type of connection or affinity do you have to Jim Brown, personally or professionally?

MF: No connection personally or professionally. Do we look like twins or something? You know, not all black people look alike.
Just kidding. What I like about him, for all of his faults, is that Jim has no hesitation to tell people to fuck off. He's done it to white racists and black civil-rights leaders alike. He does what he thinks is right even if it comes at great personal cost. I respect that.

GM: I was bothered that you didn't condemn Brown's history of violence and domestic abuse. Was this your intent and, if so, why? Are abuse and harassment more common offenses among pro athletes, especially football players, or do they just get more attention?

MF: I'm sorry to bother you because it is my mission in life not to bother you or irritate you or cause you stress. Kidding again. But seriously, you must have missed the various parts of the book where I stated there is no excusing his violent behavior against women. There is no excuse. Period. In the paperback version of the book, so I do not cause you stress, I will entitle a chapter: "JIM BROWN IS A WIFE BEATING SCUMBAG."
I have written repeatedly over the years about the issue of violence and women and the conclusion I have come to is there is no real, viable conclusion. You will interview 10 specialists and five will say football players are more prone to violence and five will say they are not.
What I do think is that the excuse-making nature of professional sports is an important ally to disgraceful wife beaters and other felons. In other words, an athlete who gets in trouble with the law knows there will be a dozen other teams willing to sign him if the original team fires him. That is the biggest factor when teams are battling the issue of violence and athletes.

GM: Along with his harassment cases, Brown also had children whom he was slow to recognize. Did society then—and does society today—create a double standard for athletes?

MF: No question about it. This is a country of celebrity worshippers. Whether they wear athletic uniforms or sing songs or rap or stand in front of a camera, we love celebs. Athletes fit perfectly into that mix.

GM: Do you think that there's a present-day analogue to Jim Brown?

MF: Brown went to Syracuse, where he was the only black man on the football team and experienced brutal racism. He played football and lacrosse. He is the only person inducted into the football and lacrosse halls of fame, in fact. He became the best running back ever in the pros—probably the best football player ever. He left football at his peak to become the first black action hero in Hollywood. He began a civil-rights organization. He now goes into the worst neighborhoods in America and pulls young black men out of gangs. So no, no one today—especially with the scared, frightened likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, gorged with corporate money and afraid to take a stand on anything—not a soul, is like Jim Brown.

"This is a country of celebrity worshippers. Whether they wear athletic uniforms or sing songs or rap or stand in front of a camera, we love celebs. Athletes fit perfectly into that mix."
GM: You mention in the Author's Note the "risks" you were taking in writing this controversial book on Jim Brown. What risks do you mean? What were the things you wanted to say but didn't, whether out of respect, intimidation, or another factor?

MF: I wrote that the FBI agent took great risks in speaking to me and I was "scared out of my mind" about how Brown and his friends would react. Anytime you write about a high-profile legend, you get a little nervous. But I held nothing back.

GM: In the concluding chapters you portray a quieter Brown, a family man. In your opinion, how do you feel Jim Brown should be remembered? Since the publication of this book, have you received any feedback from Jim Brown himself? What does he make of the book?

MF: He should be remembered as a great man with great flaws. Most of all, he should be remembered as the most unique athlete to ever live.
I have not heard from Jim but I have heard from others that he was OK with the book though not thrilled with certain parts. That is the reaction, to be honest, I would expect from Brown.

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- Books
- posted on Sep 04, 07
Mona Brinson

I am trying to find out what happened to his first wife Sue, and his children by her.

- Books
- posted on Sep 04, 07
Mona Brinson

I am trying to find out about his first marriage and his children

- Books
- posted on Sep 29, 07

Good interview Elizabeth, you did your best to get truth out of Mr. Freeman.

What he will not mention is that Brown is a rapist (and this is not an alleged accusation). He committed this heinous act during his days at Syracuse. The father of my dad's best friend was a police officer in Syracuse during Brown's days playing there. Because he was a scholarship athlete, good old Jim escaped the rap for his monstrous actions.

Aside from Brown being a rapist, he was not the best running back ever. It's great that he takes the time to make photo ops to appear like he gives a crap about inner-city youths, but who is he kidding? The guy is on probation for domestic violence. This love of Mr. Brown is misguided. I saw the best running back of all time, and his name is Barry Sanders. Barry isn't a rapist like Jim Brown, and I salute Barry as the best player I have ever seen.

- Books
- posted on Sep 11, 08

Oh,please...Jim Brown was nothing but a thug and bully for most of his life.As for "brutal racism,"
what do you think Jackie Robinson,Bill Willis,Mari-
on Motley and other African-American pioneers endured without stooping to Brown's swinishness/
And you don't like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods
because they are telegenic,erudite men who studiously avoid the charlatans(Sharpton,Jackson,
Dyson et al.who style themselves "African-Amer-
ican leaders."

- Books
- posted on Feb 11, 09
Candace Hasan

Thanks for the info. Its great for my Report. I never kown but Jim Brown

- Books
- posted on Dec 06, 11


- Books
- posted on Dec 06, 11


- Books
- posted on Oct 04, 13

Would you be defending brown with all the terrible things he's done in life if he was wouldn't you say how awful he was and should never be honored..pretty disgusting

- Books
- posted on Feb 12, 14

So... Respect for a wife beater who hangs women out windows by their feet? because he was a great athlete?

- Books
- posted on Sep 09, 14
jack farrell

jim brown was one of the best running backs, but he was and is a scum bag, he is a wife beater, rapist, and liar. He almost ended up like another great black running back, he just didn't kill anyone,,,O.J. didn't get the memo, beat the shit out of women, pay them off, but don't kill them and don't commit armed robbery,,,i don't excuse women,they should never put their hands on a man, but they do lie, just remember the Duke Lacrosse team, personally I could care less about scum like brown, O.J. and this guy rice,,the league and the teams gave these men a great living, but they didn't adopt them, and should not be responsible for their behavior off the field..

- Books
- posted on Oct 14, 14

Was GLAD to read most of these posts that described what a violent bastard Jim Brown was/is!!!
Every time he receives some kind of accolade, I want to shout, "He's a batterer of women.!!

These admirers need to do some research to see what kind of monster Jim Brown REALLY is!!

- Books
- posted on Jun 09, 15
Jerry K. Hayes

The lowest form of a man is one who would hit a woman.

Article by Elizabeth Guenard

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