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Jim Brown and Social Activism

David E. Marshall

Since most players in professional basketball and football are Black, it should come as no surprise that many high-profile Black athletes have become role models to young admirers who are also Black. Athletes such as football legend Jim Brown reached the professional ranks by overcoming tremendous odds with determination, perseverance, and commitment.

Any confident and successful pro athlete can easily become an example for a child or young adult to look up to. Charles Barkley is a former NBA star whose 16-year career covered stints in Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Houston. The outspoken Barkley once declared in a Nike commercial that kids should be taught to emulate their parents, not athletes or celebrities. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” Barkley concluded.

In an essay titled, One Role Model to Another published in a 1993 issue of Sports Illustrated, Utah Jazz star Karl Malone wrote that being a role mod

el was not Barkley’s decision to make.

“We don’t choose to be role models, Malone wrote. “We are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one. I don’t think we can accept all the glory and the money that comes with being a famous athlete and not accept the responsibility of being a role model, of knowing that kids and even some adults are watching us and looking for us to set an example.”

I agree with Karl Malone’s assessment that being a role model means not always knowing when a child has chosen your example to follow, especially when that child is without parents worthy of emulation. The danger of a child looking up to the wrong individual is a risk that automatically comes with the position being in the public arena.

In the spirit of Barkley’s point, is it wrong for professional athletes to use their public platforms for social activism? Long before the infamous “shut up and dribble” kerfuffle, it has been widely believed that sports and politics should remain separate. Some see sports as a refuge to escape the mental exhaustion of politics and social conflicts. Former NBA coach Phil Jackson is well known for having won 11 championships as a player and coach.

The 77-year-old Jackson recently claimed he no longer watches the NBA due to politics. He references the slogans used in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Jackson believes the NBA has evolved since his time and has become too political for his liking. “They even had slogans on the floor and the baseline,” Jackson said. “It was trying ….to bring a certain audience to the game, and they didn’t know it was turning other people off. People want to see sports as non-political. Politics stays out of the game; it doesn’t need to be there.”

In his comments, Jackson highlighted how the modern NBA attempts to support awareness of specific social issues that are not connecting with older generations. Having slogans such as ”End Racism” placed on basketball courts and football fields does nothing to address the actual root causes behind the problem.

While it is desired that athletes refrain from bringing political messages into the games, some players cannot simply put on a jersey, play ball, and then go home and remain publicly silent about the injustices we face. It is not wrong if a player is compelled to speak out on social issues. It just needs to be calculated and strategic to be effective. Jim Brown was not silent when it came to separating his athletic dominance on the football field from being a relevant voice in addressing the social matters impacting the Black community. He was never hesitant to speak out publicly, as many athletes were during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Jim Brown (February 17, 1936 – May 18, 2023) - Photo from Wikipedia

Brown was a social activist who often took a stand for Black citizens and other minorities whose rights were denied. Because he believed in Black empowerment, Brown became a key player with the Black Economic Union; an organization focused on creating careers for minorities by helping them get business loans to be self-sufficient. Brown was never a lone ranger, and he knew when to bring in other high-profile athletes because there is strength in numbers. He played a key role in organizing the “Cleveland Summit” in 1967, which concluded with a group of prominent players such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willie Davis, and Bobby Mitchell providing public support for Muhammad Ali, who refused to be drafted based on his religious beliefs.

On the football field, he is often ranked as one of the greatest NFL players to play the game. Off the field, his leadership and messages of motivation inspired future players and prepared them for future activism. Jim Brown passed the social activism torch to Ray Lewis and others like him. Just like Ray Lewis studied Jim Brown, Calais Campbell is a current NFL player who grew up learning Ray Lewis.

To be effective, today’s athlete-activist must take advantage of their role model status by focusing on our youth and young adults’ awareness, engagement, and empowerment. Jim Brown’s politics were not radical. He believed that Black people do not achieve advancement through the politics of protest but through the politics of earning as much money as possible to build economic self-sufficiency. We lost another icon. Rest in peace, Jim Brown.

David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of the book God Bless Our Divided America. He can be reached at


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