There’s a famous photo of Jim Brown sitting with Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali at a news conference in 1967.
Those four titans and other prominent black athletes were at a meeting, remembered as the “Cleveland Summit,” which held multiple purposes. One was to support Ali as he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Brown, who organized the meeting, wanted to found the Black Economic Union, which would support economic development and other programs in the black community. Brown has plenty of labels attached to his legacy — some are not flattering — one of the most prominent has been “political activist.” He was one of the first athletes to speak out about politics and race.
That’s why it was surprising when Brown spoke out against current NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to social issues such as racial inequality.
Jim Brown: ‘I’ll never kneel’
Brown, known as one of the most prominent activist/athletes of his era (and probably all eras), said he would never kneel for the national anthem, according to Tom Withers of the Associated Press.
“I’ll never kneel and I will always respect the flag,” Brown told Withers before the HBO premiere of “Hard Knocks” that features the Browns.
Brown, who is 82, said he supported the players’ rights to kneel. But he didn’t agree with what they’re doing.
“Well, if you take the bottom line, what are we talking about? We’re talking about freedom to express one’s self, and if you don’t break any rules then you have that particular right,” Brown told the Associated Press.
“I am not going to denigrate my flag and I’m going to stand for the national anthem. I’m fighting with all of my strength to make it a better country, but I don’t think that’s the issue. Because what is the top side? Are you not going to stand up? This is our country, man.
“We work hard to make it better and that’s my attitude, so I don’t relate to this issue because it’s newsworthy because where are your superstars? And where are they at? Aren’t they making comments?”
Brown’s complicated legacy
It would seem that Brown would have supported athletes using their platform to bring about change, considering he did so all the way back to his playing career with the Browns. However, the entire anthem issue is complex. So is Brown.
In recent years, Brown drew criticism for his support of Donald Trump after Trump was elected president. Brown has been a controversial, compelling figure his entire adult life, and it’s no different in his 80s.
The anthem issue remains a major story, thanks to the NFL’s various blunders surrounding the topic. Now we know that Brown, the ultimate NFL activist, wouldn’t have been kneeling alongside Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and the other players looking to bring about positive change.
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