Search

Prisoner of Conscience In a jailhouse interview Jim Brown sounds off about his life behind bars, the NFL and do-nothing sports stars

April 15, 2002
April 15, 2002

Table of Contents
April 15, 2002

Pro Football

Prisoner of Conscience In a jailhouse interview Jim Brown sounds off about his life behind bars, the NFL and do-nothing sports stars

Though he is one of the greatest athletes in history, Jim Brown
has always been much more than that. Even as he starred in four
sports at Syracuse--scoring 43 points in one football game,
leading the country in goals in lacrosse--and set the NFL career
rushing record in just nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he
tried to use his sports fame for greater purposes. Outspoken on
racial issues, he rallied other black athletes in a public show
of support for Muhammad Ali's draft resistance in 1967 and
organized the Black Economic Union, which assisted more than 400
African-American-owned businesses in the '60s and '70s. As his
football career was ending, Brown took up acting and became the
first black action star, with leading roles in The Dirty Dozen,
Ice Station Zebra and many other films. His groundbreaking
interracial love scenes with Raquel Welch in the 1969 movie 100
Rifles shocked white movie audiences.

This is an article from the April 15, 2002 issue

Despite all his laudable work in recent years trying to reform
gang members and curb inner-city violence, Brown has always
seemed threatening to some Americans. He has only bolstered that
image with recurring displays of anger, especially against women.
Brown was fined $500 and briefly jailed for beating up a male
golf partner in 1978, and he has faced assault charges against
women five times over the last four decades; in the first four
cases the charges were either dropped or he was acquitted after
his female accusers decided not to testify against him.

It was on March 12, as a result of his latest such episode, that
Brown entered the Ventura County (Calif.) Jail to serve a 180-day
sentence for misdemeanor vandalism with domestic-violence
conditions. Brown, 66, was arrested in June 1999 after his wife,
Monique, then 25, called 911 from a neighbor's house in Hollywood
Hills to report that her husband had smashed the windows of her
car with a shovel after arguing with her. Though a jury acquitted
Brown on the more serious charge of making a terrorist threat
against his wife--Monique told the 911 operator that Jim had
threatened to kill her, a claim she later retracted--it convicted
him of vandalism, and Los Angeles Superior Court judge Dale
Fischer fined him $1,800 and sentenced him to three years'
probation, a year of domestic-violence counseling and his choice
of 40 hours on a work crew or 400 hours of community service.
When Brown refused to accept the counseling, Fischer imposed the
jail sentence. Brown appealed--arguing that he had not committed
an act of domestic violence and that Fischer had been biased
against him--and lost.

Just days after he began serving time, a new 130-minute
documentary about his life, by director Spike Lee, opened for a
brief run in New York City. The film, entitled Jim Brown:
All-American, will play in Los Angeles in mid-April and then be
reedited and shortened for airing on HBO in December. "Jim Brown
is a complex and misunderstood man, and that's the type of person
I like to make films about," says Lee. For the film, a
wide-ranging examination of Brown's life, Lee chased down the
central figure in one of the more celebrated events in Brown's
past, former girlfriend Eva Bohn-Chin, a model whom Brown was
long alleged to have pushed off a second-floor balcony during an
argument in 1968. Brown claims the story is untrue and has said
Bohn-Chin jumped from the balcony. In the documentary Bohn-Chin
never says exactly what did happen, but she asks, "Why would I
jump?"

Brown agreed to an interview with SI's Don Yaeger on Sunday at
the Ventura jail, where the pro football Hall of Famer spends 23
hours a day in a 6-by-10-foot cell, isolated from other inmates
because of his celebrity. When Yaeger visited him, a gaunt and
weary Brown was still in the midst of a fast that began the day
he entered the jail. During the 60-minute visit his eyes lit up
only when Monique held the couple's five-month-old son, Aris, up
to the thick glass separating Brown from his visitors.

SI: What did you think of Spike Lee's documentary?

Brown: I thought it was interesting because I learned some things
by listening to what others had to say about me. Spike's a great
filmmaker and is great at getting people to talk, and I learned a
lot from what my kids said to him.

SI: What did you learn?

Brown: I listened to my kids talk about me as a parent, and I
learned about things they wished I'd done and said. And I wished
that I had done more of those things. They told Spike things
they've never told me.

SI: You have made a career of supporting other black athletes
when they needed it, and now a few of them are coming out to
support you at a press conference on April 17. I'm told Bill
Russell, George Foreman and others will be there. But none of the
names I've heard are of today's generation of athletes. Does this
disappoint you?

Brown: Sure it does, but it doesn't surprise me. Money has
changed today's black athletes. Those who have the ability as
African men to bring a change in a community that so desperately
needs it are concentrating only on their own careers, some
charities and how much money they can make.

SI: Which athletes disappoint you the most?

Brown: The ones that are most popular and most powerful. Michael
Jordan would be one. Charles [Barkley] is talking about issues,
but I don't think Charles is in touch with the community. They're
all nice guys, now--don't misunderstand me. But they have the ears
of the general public, they have the money, and they could call
together 100 black athletes and solve so many problems in these
inner cities, it would be unbelievable.

SI: What's different about today's black athlete from those you
gathered in support of Ali in '67?

Brown: They are the beneficiaries of our struggle. But they don't
recognize that because they're inundated with agents, managers,
lawyers and owners who don't want them to do anything but play
ball and hopefully keep themselves out of trouble and just be
physical freaks of nature with no [awareness] of decision-making
power.

SI: What current athlete do you admire?

Brown: Compared with a Bill Russell?

SI: Sure.

Brown: Nobody.

SI: Compared with a Jim Brown.

Brown: I don't compare myself with anyone. Let me tell you about
someone I do admire. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots
has contributed more to the work I surround myself with than any
black athlete in modern times--financially, intellectually, every
way. He's been in the prisons with me. He's met gang members in
my home; he's met gang members in Cleveland [where Belichick
coached the Browns from 1991 to '95]. He's put up money. He's
opened up areas of education for us very quietly and very
strongly. Imagine what would happen if Michael Jordan did the
same thing.

Now if you're talking about comparing someone to me on the field,
you take Emmitt Smith of Dallas. I saw him play hurt, and I saw
the championship heart he had. But that was on the field. My life
has never been on the field. It has always been [about what I've
done] on multiple levels off it.

SI: What about Tiger?

Brown: Tiger's involved in a mission that his father set for him,
and he's doing a great job of it. As an individual, through his
golf, he's demonstrating some great things. But that's it. He's
focused on golf.

SI: But he has that foundation that brings golfing opportunities
to disadvantaged kids....

Brown: Can I tell you something? Everybody does good things, but
I'm talking about making major changes in the educational system
that would impact an entire race. I'm talking about stopping
these young gang members from killing one another. I'm talking
about keeping prisons from overflowing. I'm not talking about
teaching black kids to golf and get to country clubs. Come on!
That's wonderful to do, but Tiger makes enough money that he
could change many more things that are important to black kids
than learning to golf.

SI: When you say that to young black athletes, how do they react?

Brown: I don't talk to very many of them. I give them their space
because they have a right to do what they want to do in this
country. Most of them already feel they know more than I know.
They make more money, and they've got more power. They're
relevant today because they create profits for owners. That's it.
Michael Jordan brings millions of dollars when he shows up in an
arena. Since money is how we judge people, he's very valuable.
But while that's happening, Rome is burning within the black
community.

In the '60s, when I called the athletes to come and talk to Ali,
they didn't bring their agents, managers and lawyers. They came
because they thought it was worthwhile. When we started the Black
Economic Union to develop black businesses, those athletes
participated. We athletes were just like normal citizens in those
days, fighting for our rights. We didn't put our sport before our
manhood.

SI: Why do you talk about black athletes, and not others, as
potential leaders in the black community?

Brown: Because in the world's consciousness, who are the most
influential black men in America? Athletes. Look at all those
polls and see whose name is at the top: Michael Jordan, Shaquille
O'Neal, Tiger Woods.

SI: Who is the greatest leader of the black community today?

Brown: C'mon. There's no black leader anymore.

SI: There's no Martin Luther King?

Brown: Martin Luther King was a misguided leader. He worked to be
recognized as the leader of black America when what black America
needs isn't a leader, it is education. Giving speeches and
marching, that's not the concept that brings about real freedom,
equality and justice. We need a philosophy that is adopted in
every household that raising our children to be responsible for
their own actions is a must. I don't see the [so-called] leaders
of the Jewish community; I don't see the leaders of the Korean
community. Their strength is in local leaders, household leaders.

SI: You mention the Jewish and Korean communities in America.
Neither of those groups is highly represented in professional
sports. Do you think that's connected to the value they place on
education?

Brown: Absolutely. Black kids in this country--because of all the
emphasis that is placed on athletics in their community--believe
that is their way out. It makes education less important. There's
no question athletics and the belief that they're the only ticket
[to success] has hurt black America.

SI: That is ironic coming from you since you got your education
because of athletics.

Brown: Yes, but most kids today don't see that. They see the
millions [of dollars], and they don't understand that too great
an emphasis in their community is being put on a dream that will
never develop a people. And even for those few who do make it,
they serve at the pleasure of the owners. They never have
control.

SI: What's your opinion of the high school players who are going
straight to the NBA?

Brown: They should leave if they have the ability. They should
get the money and then they should get their education along with
their playing. You can do both. You don't have to wait.

SI: You mentioned that you'd love to see a young athlete call
together 100 other young black athletes and try to focus on
improving black America. Why don't you do it?

Brown: Because I don't have the power to do it. To do this right,
it would take a modern athlete at the height of his popularity
and power to really pull people together. When I had the power of
being the Number 1 guy, I used that power to make things happen.
If I approached Michael today, he'd look at me like I'm an old
has-been football player. All I can be anymore is a doer of good
deeds and a builder of bridges.

SI: Given the several charges of violence that have been leveled
against you in the past, do you have a problem with women?

Brown: I can definitely get angry, and I have taken that anger
out inappropriately in the past. But I have done so with both men
and women. So do I have a problem with women? No. I have had
anger, and I'll probably continue to have anger. I just have to
not strike out at anyone ever again. I have to be smarter than
that, smarter than I was. What I would say is that with wisdom, I
will only use my mentality or my spirit aggressively. I will
never use my hands [that way] again.

SI: Where did you get that wisdom?

Brown: Over recent years, as I've understood what power really is
and what dedication really is. The power is between your ears.
The power is in your heart. It is up to God to take revenge. Only
God can judge. I don't have to worry about getting even with
anybody or taking out any kind of aggression on anybody. Doing
that is a weakness anyway.

SI: What is the purpose of your fasting?

Brown: It is not a hunger strike, as some have said. It is a
spiritual fast. Just water. I've lost 22 pounds. It is strictly
a mental thing. This reminds me and the people here that I am
still in control of me.

SI: How do you feel about the fact they've put you in
administrative segregation and keep you in your cell 23 hours a
day?

Brown: It definitely is exceptional punishment, don't you think?
They don't have a category in jail that says, "[You're a]
celebrity, and we're going to protect you." So they put you in
administrative segregation, which takes away quite a few of your
rights but protects [the county] from being liable for anything
because nobody's going to be able to touch you.

SI: Spike Lee said he thinks the jailers realize you are so
popular that inmates might rise up in support of you if you were
in the general jail population.

Brown: I would never attempt to cause an uprising. But I have the
ability to communicate with inmates and gang members. That's what
my work has been. I've taught [rudimentary life skills to] more
than 18,000 inmates in California state prisons. I've been in a
room with 400 inmates, basically by myself.

SI: What do you do during the day?

Brown: I've been reading a lot of Scripture, a lot of history,
the history of Navajos, American history and some civil rights
history.

SI: Have you ever considered running for political office to make
changes?

Brown: First, I'm not sure I'm qualified. But the truth is that
politicians are basically tied to trying to get reelected, so
they can't really make landmark changes. And the changes we need
can't be made from the top. They need to be bottom-up changes
that involve fathers and mothers, not politicians.

SI: Do you ever want to act again?

Brown: Only when it is a great director. An Oliver Stone, Spike
Lee or [Tim Burton], the guy who did Planet of the Apes. It is
always fun when you have a good director.

SI: What do you think of the NFL today?

Brown: It is great entertainment, but it is entertainment, not
sport anymore. The packaging of it is fantastic. The presentation
of it is sometimes greater than the substance of the game. Their
way of building stars and emphasizing outdated records keeps
people interested. But the talent is not too good, it is too
spread out, and it has been watered down.

SI: What in your life do you most regret?

Brown: Not reaching out to my kids more. [According to Monique,
Brown has six children in addition to Aris.] I've been getting
closer to them in my latter years because I've been economically
more sound and had the time off from my work. So I've gotten a
chance to deal with them, and it is such a pleasure. They're
enjoying it and tell me they've always wanted that. So I just
look back and think how much more I should have done with them.

SI: What are you most proud of?

Brown: I think of my life as a journey, and I'm still on it. But
under the circumstances I'm glad I'm in jail because everyone
seems to think the most important thing to me would be to get
out. I say no; I took a position against a judge who did me
wrong, who gave me a sentence that is totally out of whack. I'm
here on principle. I stood up to her and said I would fight her,
and if I lose I will go to jail. I'm serving the time as an
honorable person. I do not give them a problem. I abide by the
rules. I do what I'm supposed to do. This has given me a chance
to challenge myself. Hopefully all good things will come out of
it.

COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL Gaunt giant After 27 days of fasting in jail, a drawn Jim Brown criticized today's top black athletes. [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEY TERRILL Locked up Brown (in a visiting room) accepted 180 days in jail rather than submit to a year of domestic-violence counseling.COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFERCOLOR PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS
"Tiger makes enough money that he could change many more things
that are important to black kids than learning to golf."
"Martin Luther King was a misguided leader. Giving speeches and
marching doesn't bring about real freedom and justice."