Unbendable, unbreakable, and on the playing field unbeatable, the football great Jim Brown once loomed as the standard against which other men were measured and found lacking. In a Sports Illustrated profile in 2015, Tim Layden conveyed the majesty of Brown’s dominance of the NFL as a fullback for the Cleveland Browns: “Brown towered over the league, a physical and intellectual force like none other in American sports history.” At his most exalted Brown was christened the “Black Superman,” his powers far beyond those of mortal beings. (His ill-fated friend Richard Pryor joked in one stand-up set that fire was afraid of Jim Brown, imitating Brown brushing off flames as if they were annoying dandruff.) Even now, at the age of eighty-two, reliant on a cane, Brown projects a force of personality, charisma, and deep-down purpose that can subdue any room he enters; he remains somebody you wouldn’t want to trifle with.
The title of Dave Zirin’s Jim Brown: Last Man Standing strikes a chord of valedictory tribute to a bronze idol embodying an era and an ethos soon to pass into history and gladiator lore. It’s partly that—how could it not be?—but Last Man Standing is not some jock aria or nostalgia trip. A frequent contributor to The Nation whose previous books include What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States and Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports, Zirin isn’t that kind of journalist. He utilizes a larger analytical toolkit. An NFL hall of famer, Hollywood star, and radical political activist, Brown represents a black pillar of lifelong achievement who has always cleaved to his convictions, but he’s also a questionable figure who’s never had to face the music, and by music I mean a #MeToo reckoning. Zirin wants to hasten the reckoning before Brown runs out the clock.
To do so requires going over a lot of familiar turf, establishing the political-historical-racial background, and all that. The blood, sweat, and dirt of the Jim Brown saga has been told before in other biographies, Brown’s own autobiography Out of Bounds (1989), football chronicles, and video documentaries—the most provocative being Spike Lee’s Jim Brown: All-American (2002)—but prodigious exploits lose little in the retelling. (As the ever-expanding shelf of titles devoted to Muhammad Ali attests.)
In Brown, all of the constituent parts of athletic prowess—not only strength but speed, agility, mental preparedness—were welded together into a phenomenon who dominated not one but two sports, while also excelling in basketball and track and field. As a lacrosse star at Syracuse University, Brown wielded his stick with Kendo master skill as he powered to the net, the opposing players futilely bouncing off his juggernaut thighs like elves. “Brown was bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone the sport of lacrosse had ever seen by a ludicrous margin,” Zirin writes. But lacrosse was not a sport to capture the imagination of a nation. Football was. A running back and place-kicker for Syracuse, Brown dominated and electrified. He scored an astounding six touchdowns in a game against Colgate, and made All-American. Even that college prelude didn’t prepare fans for the ramp-up once he turned pro.
As a running back for the Cleveland Browns for nine seasons beginning in 1957, he tore through defensive lines like an armored car, leading the league in rushing eight seasons out of nine, averaging over 100 rushing yards a game, scoring 106 touchdowns over the course of his career, sending defensive linemen to the brink of despair. (“When Detroit Lions tackle Alex Karras was asked how to stop Brown, he said, ‘Give each guy in the line an ax.’”) His warrior ferocity between the lines was complemented by a cool professional demeanor out of uniform. He carried a briefcase, wore suits on the road, mentored his teammates to think and act like businessmen and look after their finances. He was, to use the phrase immortalized by baseball’s Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred the drink.
And then in 1966, at the top of his game, to the shock of the sports world and the lamentation of fans, Brown quit pro football. He had been cast in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen as one of the hard-ass incorrigibles and bug-eyed crazies recruited for a suicide mission. (Brown had made one previous film, the western Rio Conchos, and had gotten a hankering to be the black John Wayne.) With the production of The Dirty Dozen behind schedule in Britain and the next NFL season fast approaching, Browns owner Art Modell made the mistake of turning an owner–player dispute into a public test of Brown’s manhood. Modell ordered Brown to report to training camp on the set date or receive suspension without pay and a $100 a day fine. “Everything comes back to his manhood,” says former sports columnist Robert Lipsyte, who was reporting on the filming of The Dirty Dozen at the time. And Brown’s manhood was never going to fold up and go home. He announced his retirement at a press conference, wearing his character’s military fatigues and standing in front of a pair of army tanks. No flowery sentiment, no lofty rhetoric: it’s been great, good-bye. This clean break echoed like a thunderclap across the Atlantic.
When The Dirty Dozen proved to be a stampeding success, one of those 1960s guy’s-guy films like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven that venerate teamwork, ingenuity, underdog bravado, and violent motion with none of that mushy stuff, Brown transitioned from all-star to action hero as if stepping out of the locker room straight into the wardrobe department. He joined the parka crew of Ice Station Zebra, led a heist of a football stadium in The Split, played a sheriff in the South in the now cult classic…tick…tick…tick…, costarred with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles, a lust-in-the-dust western in which their equally famous chests battled for camera supremacy, and starred in a handful of blaxploitation films with high body counts.
Although the range of emotion Brown displayed on screen was no wider than a mail slot, he never embarrassed himself, never played to a demeaning stereotype or the comic patsy (as O.J. Simpson would later do in the Naked Gun series). He was a rugged chassis for a more self-assertive figure: the black uberman who could outfight and outfuck any pasty punk in his path. Where Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte epitomized class, elegance, and ebullience, Brown was more of a door buster and body slammer whose protagonists, dodging muzzle blasts and mobster beatdowns, placed a low premium on shiny-enameled elocution and dapper body language.
As lovers, Brown’s men were often brusque takers, exciting the danger zones of women—“Women are afraid of him but they’re attracted to him at the same time,” the producer Robert Chartoff said of Brown’s sex appeal, adding, “He satisfies women’s masochistic need”1—and inciting the envy of white men. He was even offered the starring role in Mandingo, the ultimate black stallion pulp fantasy, but wisely declined, sparing himself considerable personal indignity and James Mason’s atrocious southern accent. Besides, Jim Brown didn’t need to play Mandingo to solidify his totemic stature.
His offscreen cocksmanship more than took care of that. Brown preferred his women petite, young, and peachy. “When I eat a peach I don’t want it overripe,” he specified in Out of Bounds, and he helped himself to a lot of peaches. Yet the man wasn’t selfish; Brown’s home in the Hollywood Hills became a happy hunting ground for hedonists where he hosted what he called “Creative Orgies,” swinger affairs that were presumably a curated upgrade from the average heap of Hollywood hustlers and playmates. The secret spice for these soirees, Brown revealed in his autobiography, was women who appeared wholesome, sweet, and coolly proper and who, properly stimulated, went freaky-deaky. Perhaps fun was had by all at these rumbas, but they have entered the annals of legend mostly as a showcase for Brown’s staying power and busy turnover. “Just between you, me, and the tabloids,” Brown bragged in Out of Bounds, “I’ve had up to eight girls in my room, maybe four on my couch and four on my bed. I might have sex in one night with four or five of them. But only if Jim Junior was feeling exceptional.”
Along with Jim Junior always at the ready, Brown had another Jim in his life then, the journalist and future screenwriter-director James Toback, whose 1971 memoir Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown offered an insightful, entertaining, effusive inside portrait of Brown’s life made possible by unprecedented access and largesse. A friend and protégé of Norman Mailer who had reported from the set of Mailer’s Maidstone for Esquire in 1968, Toback—whom, I should mention, I’ve known and been friendly with since the 1970s,2 when we met through the movie critic Pauline Kael—had been assigned to profile Brown for the magazine. The profile was a nonstarter but a bromance was born and Brown invited “Toe,” as he nicknamed him, to crash at his Hollywood Hills pad. Which Toe did. For months.
It was like something out of a Leslie Fiedler essay, this archetypal bond between Jewish and black soul brothers. The two Jims played tennis, shot hoops, cruised a hopping night spot called the Candy Store (“Warren Beatty, sitting with twins in identical dresses, jumps up to shake hands and say hello”), and partied together at Brown’s pad—an unfolding sexual odyssey of boogie nights blurring into one epic satin reverie. In the scene that everyone who has read Jim has embedded in memory, no matter how hard they’ve tried to remove it, Toback and Brown shared the same bed for a romp session with their respective partners of the evening—a ménage à quatre—whereupon, taking participatory journalism to a new threshold of excitement, Toback paced the rhythm of his thrusts to Brown’s, trading hip solos and achieving a barrier-dissolving oneness on the bouncing boxsprings: “Black and white, female, male,” a beautiful chocolate-vanilla swirl.
Even this harem phase of Brown’s life wasn’t one of idle dissipation. By day he was still fully engaged in the political fight. Discipline undergirds everything he does, and his dedication to social activism and black self-determination is the steel cable through-line that distinguishes him from many sports stars. It has its source in a showdown that taught Brown a harrowing lesson that permanently stuck. While in college, Brown was traveling in a car with Syracuse teammates through the South where he was pulled over by a cop who emerged from his vehicle gun drawn. “Get out, niggers!” he ordered. Another police unit pulled up. The situation escalated through no provocation of Brown’s until he found himself with a gun jammed in his gut by a cop only too happy to squeeze the trigger. Only when the second cop said he recognized Brown as a football star did the first cop retract his weapon, warning Brown that he “better learn how to act down here, nigger!”
The incident shook Brown. “You don’t forget a thing like that,” he told Alex Haley, “not if somebody handed you every trophy in football and fifteen Academy Awards.” The special treatment accorded a black celebrity is no magnetic shield. It can dissolve in a single moment of nonrecognition from some trigger-happy bigot. “We don’t want to have to be somebody special to be treated with respect,” Brown said.
In 1967, Brown organized what has come to be called “the Ali Summit,” a meeting of some of the top African-American athletes—including basketball stars Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)—in a demonstration of solidarity for Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his boxing title, vilified in the press, and was facing the possibility of prison for his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War. The summit was convened in the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union, founded by Brown to foster and fund black business enterprise. It proved a landmark event. The photograph of Russell, Ali, Brown, and Alcindor seated at a table together presenting a united front for the press put the country on notice that the day of the go-along, get-along black athlete was done.
Then as now, Brown disdains and chastises superstar athletes who use fame and wealth as a moat, criticizing Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods at their celebrity peak for not doing enough for the community and being more concerned with their brands. In 1988, Brown founded Amer-I-Can, a program to foster self-esteem and achieve self-actualization, which sounds like a ton of Tony Robbins hooey, except that as Amer-I-Can’s point man and gruff ambassador, Brown has used his cred and clout to administer tough love to gang members and broker truces between rival outfits. He put himself out there and showed what true masculinity is made of, preventing carnage, setting individual lives straight. As Zirin indicates, Brown’s my-way-or-the-highway leadership hindered Amer-I-Can from becoming the organizational force it might have been, but a fortified, battleworn ego like Brown’s isn’t easy to modulate, especially as one gets older, crankier, more dug-in.
Brown is so dug-in today that he’s being swamped by problems long-brewing. Karma has caught up with him. As with Bill Cosby, the good that Brown has done, the accomplishments he’s racked up for over half a century, have become tainted items. Even Black Superman can’t control the formation of opinion or the dishwater churn of social media. A headline on the website Deadspin put it starkly: “Jim Brown Did Great Things; He Also Beat Women.”
Brown has a lengthy rap sheet of alleged violence against women that reaches back to 1965. The incidents include a charge of assault and battery perpetrated against an eighteen-year-old in a Howard Johnson motel (he was found not guilty); a battery charge, later dropped, for allegedly flinging two women down a flight of stairs for refusing to perform a sex act together; charges of rape and assault involving a woman living in his home, dismissed by the judge because of inconsistent testimony; and most infamously, the twenty-foot fall from the balcony of Brown’s second-floor hotel room of girlfriend and model Eva Bohn-Chin, who was found sprawled, bleeding, and dazed on the concrete. Brown was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but the case was dropped after Bohn-Chin told authorities she wasn’t pushed or thrown but had slipped and tumbled—a pretty fishy explanation but without her cooperation there was nothing to hang on Brown except resisting arrest, for which he was fined a feeble $300. (Years later Bohn-Chin’s account of that evening in Spike Lee’s documentary contradicts Brown’s version, but her speech is so stop-start and elliptical that it’s hard to get clarity on the particulars.)
Brown and his defenders contend that despite the litany of accusations and charges, he’s never been convicted of any crime against women and only done time once—when he chose to serve a six-month sentence rather than undergo counseling and perform community service for vandalizing his wife’s car during a domestic dispute. Brown also not implausibly claims that he was the target of an LAPD campaign to nail him because of his bold political profile—such as his friendship with Black Panther founder Huey Newton (“He was my favorite Panther”)—and the resisting-arrest incident.
The last recorded log entry on Brown’s altercations with women dates back to 1999. (He and his wife Monique have been married since 1997.) Brown has acknowledged and expressed regret over slapping women in the past in the heat of argument, but don’t expect him to break down and give us what used to be called a “Barbara Walters moment,” an emotion-choked confession accompanied by contrition. He intends to hang tough until the final bell. “The last thing I’m going to give up is my manhood,” he tells Zirin.
“Brown has asserted his fierce sense of manhood as a principle of emancipation,” writes Zirin.
But the history of accusations of violence against women levied against him has scarred his legacy…. It has prevented him from achieving the kind of mainstream adulation bestowed on contemporaries like Ali and [Bill] Russell. Barack Obama—who as president took a particular joy from his regular interaction with black sports heroes of yesteryear—never dialogued with Jim Brown. Donald Trump, however, rolled out the red carpet.
And Brown accepted the invitation, receiving a chorus of catcalls from former admirers and appalled bystanders. Not that he cares. Politically, Brown has always gone his own way, shrugging off criticism as just another species of crowd noise. Along with the soul singer James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr., he was one of the most prominent black supporters of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential bid (in part because of Nixon’s seeming embrace of “black capitalism” initiatives), not a popular move.
Trump is far tawdrier company. Two of his most prominent African-American supporters during the campaign were former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, and boxing promoter Don King, a convicted murderer (reduced by the judge to manslaughter)—not exactly an elevator car you want to squeeze into. And then there’s Trump himself, a toddling repository of loutishness with women, with whom no one associates without walking away soiled. “What the Hell Happened to Jim Brown?” was the vexing question Stephen A. Crockett Jr. raised at the website The Root, rueing that “Brown has never been one to bow down to anyone, so it’s beyond weird to watch the man my father lauded almost as much as he did Ali cower and soft-shoe his way around Trump when he used to run over people just like him.” Perhaps it’s because Brown feels an affinity for a creaky steamroller who refuses to apologize for his behavior and has gotten away with it. Or perhaps Trump stroked his vanity where it was most susceptible to cheap flattery, the only kind Trump dispenses. Infatuations are often hard to decipher.
Jim Brown: Last Man Standing closes on an unsatisfactory note. More than one unsatisfactory note, actually—an awkward straddle between hope and cynicism that’s attributable to the fact that Zirin doesn’t have a fit ending to the story as long as Brown remains standing. Unable to compose a conclusive epitaph, Zirin positions Brown as the forerunner to a fresh generation of black female protestors who
are now carrying the torch of Jim Brown’s lifelong fight against injustice with a flair and determination that is inspiring people across the country…. They are taking the best of the tradition of self-assertion in the face of racism, making it their own, and discarding the rest. That knowledge should comfort Jim Brown.
I doubt Jim Brown seeks comfort and doubt too that these young black female activists have Jim Brown lodged high in their political consciousness. It’s as if Zirin is releasing a flock of doves in the last chapter in the name of harmony, an author’s equivalent to a Hail Mary pass.
But then follows an afterword where Zirin suddenly drops this line, forsaking the big picture and presuming to channel Brown’s thought processes, a dubious device he uses for chapter introductions throughout the book that originated with the old-school sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, who would kick off a column, “You’re Mickey Mantle. You’re a bubblegum kid in a chew-tobacco league…” “You are Jim Brown and it has been a hell of a year,” and so it has: presenting the championship title to Lebron James after the Cleveland Cavaliers slay “the curse of Cleveland,” having a statue erected in front of Browns Stadium, becoming the go-to guy to interpret Muhammad Ali’s legacy after Ali’s passing. One long Indian summer of toasty appreciation. Then: “The phone rings. It’s Donald Trump. You have met him over the years at various golf and charity events. He wants you by his side as he prepares for his presidential inauguration. He doesn’t care about any of the past female bullshit.” Brown responds to the devil’s call and thereby forfeits all the warm fuzzies the future had in store:
The arrows are coming at you, just like in the 1950s, except this time it isn’t from the racists, the bigots. It’s from the black community. It’s from your old allies. It’s from people who have spent the last sixty years defending you. Your face appears in what outsiders must think is a grimace. But it’s a smile that comes from somewhere deep and ancient, and you say, “This is glory.” Again. You matter.
If this is a rough approximation of where Brown’s mind is, he’s deluded, and if it’s Zirin’s ventriloquism act, it rings false. It’s as if Zirin’s prose popped a Viagra and ran into the wall. Brown’s greatness as an athlete and activist will matter in the victory hall of posterity, but not here, not now—not in this nightmare burlesque melodrama we’re all trapped in. Michael Cohen matters. Paul Manafort matters. Robert Mueller preeminently matters. Jim Brown is a minor sideshow, an incidental noise-generator, in this high-stakes charade. To truly matter in the existential present, he’d need to repudiate Donald Trump and own up on the women he’s hurt, and no one’s waiting around for that fairy tale to happen. But with Trump renewing his castigation of kneeling NFL players even as I type, imagine the impact if Brown told him to back off and let these grown men exercise their freedom of expression. A statement of solidarity from Jim Brown would defy Trump’s rhino charge and earn Brown back some of the respect he’s lost in the last year. It wouldn’t make up for everything, but partial redemption is better than none.
Neither masochistic nor needy, Raquel Welch doesn’t fondly recall the sensation of Brown slipping his tongue in her ear during their first sex scene in 100 Rifles. “I’m getting a squeegee on the side of my face…. I thought, ‘What is this crap!’” ↩
Toback has also achieved infamy as one of the worst alleged #MeToo malefactors, accused of serial sexual harassment and threatening behavior by hundreds of women, including actors Rachel McAdams, Selma Blair, and Julianne Moore. To date, no criminal charges have been filed and Toback is no longer under investigation for sex crimes in Los Angeles. ↩