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Today’s NFL players see the same injustices that prompted Jim Brown to be an activist

Brown’s stature on the field and in Hollywood got people to pay attention

When Jim Brown ran on the football field, he moved with power, grace and speed. During his career, he rushed for a then career-record 12,312 yards and starred on the Cleveland Browns’ last NFL championship team in 1964, one of eight years he led the NFL in rushing during a nine-year career.

But it was the way he walked on the field between plays that defined him in my eyes. He walked with the determined purpose of a man making his way to a roll of sheet metal, a bale of cotton or a cord of wood. Wasn’t no need to hurry. Nobody paid him for hurrying. He got paid to get things right.

He got paid for being the best NFL running back of his era. And when it looked like the Browns wouldn’t respect him as a man, he left the NFL before the beginning of the 1966 season. He left for Hollywood, where he performed in movies such as The Dirty Dozen, a World War II action drama.

Throughout his public life, Brown has been a man of action. He’s worked to end gang violence in California, for a time helped Richard Pryor produce the movies that would present a worthy showcase for his comedic genius, campaigned for Barack Obama and then gave the nation’s first black president only a “C” for his performance.

He’s the kind of man you’d want to agree with. Indeed, I join Brown in not wanting to see the American flag disrespected. That’s why he says he doesn’t support the movement that former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick fostered of protesting police misconduct and societal inequality during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before NFL games.

But for me, the American flag is disrespected most when it is carried by braying bullies who see no dangerous contradiction in waving the American flag with one hand and the Nazi or Confederate flags in another. For me, the flag is disrespected when scoundrels and grifters cloak their disdain for people unlike themselves in the flag and supposed patriotism. It’s disrespected when ceremony and pageantry appear to be more important to some in honoring the flag and America than prompting the nation to live up to its highest ideals.

For me, the American flag is disrespected most when it is carried by braying bullies who see no dangerous contradiction in waving the American flag with one hand and the Nazi or Confederate flags in another.

When I was a child, I looked up to men like Jim Brown, whether they earned their money on the football field or the factory floor. They were strong and honest. They worked for everything they got. And they strived to help others, too.

Indeed, I believe that black America has paid a withering cost because so many factories have closed. The jobs that helped generations of young black men earn their living and support their families and communities are long gone.

Jim Brown is in his 80s. But he has not gone away. He continues to help communities do things he believes must be done. He has a right to his opinion and a right to express it, just as Kaepernick and current NFL players do. And it’s up to today’s players to decide whether, when, where and how they will protest, what role they will play in improving America.

Our nation’s flag is just a piece of cloth with stars and stripes on it, our national anthem, just a song that’s hard to sing, unless we’re willing to struggle to get things right in America.

A half-century ago, Jim Brown was among a group of black athletes, intellectuals and activists who talked about using a proposed boycott by American black athletes of the Olympics in Mexico to make a point about racial injustice in America. In those days, many of Brown’s elders thought he and his cohorts were wrong. There was no mass boycott of the games by star black athletes. But sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith‘s black-gloved protest from the medal stand during the games endures as an act of strength, courage and patriotism.

Sometimes right and wrong get seen more clearly with hindsight.

As time passes, Kaepernick and those who have followed him remind us that protest, sometimes controversial and condemned, has been the forerunner of needed change in America. Kaepernick and his NFL cohorts have again put the American flag in the firm and proud grasp of those who understand something real and unassailable: Our nation’s flag is just a piece of cloth with stars and stripes on it, our national anthem, just a song that’s hard to sing, unless we’re willing to struggle to get things right in America.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.