Football great Jim Brown on 'The Express' and why Kobe needs to step it up
"The Express," which opens Friday, is a great new film about the life of Ernie Davis, the Syracuse running back who helped his team win the 1959 national championship and was the first African American athlete to take home the Heisman Trophy. But when director Gary Fleder began work on the film, he couldn't go to the source, since Davis died at age 23 of leukemia before he could play a single down in the NFL. Nor could Fleder talk to Davis' coach, the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder (played in the film by Dennis Quaid), who died in 1993.
Luckily there was one person who knew the entire story: Jim Brown. He was the man who first put Syracuse on the map as a football power, who clashed with Schwartzwalder but still helped recruit Davis and who would've starred in the same Cleveland Browns backfield with Davis if Ernie had lived to play in the NFL. So when Fleder asked if I wanted to meet the film's unofficial historical advisor, I jumped at the chance. After all, Brown is not just a football great but a civil rights activist, a pioneering black movie star and a longtime advocate of economic empowerment in the African American community.
"I didn't have Ernie to talk to," Fleder says. "But Jim gave me a strong point of view about Ernie and the challenges he had to go through. He knew firsthand what it was like to walk around on campus, what it was like to play in front of a hostile crowd at the Cotton Bowl when the South was still segregated. What a director is always looking for is subtext. Jim was able to give me everything was happening between the lines, the things that were on the inside of all the events in Ernie's life."
At 72, Brown is no longer a dominating physical presence. Slowed by back and hip ailments, he walks with a cane. But his views on today's athletes and the impact of sports on our culture are as potent as ever. He is not shy about sharing his views. In fact, one reason I sought him out was to get him to expand on a remark he made earlier this year, when he said of today's athletes: "They don't study and read. If they understood history, they would never shake their butts in the end zone."
Why is that so bad, I asked. "To shake your butt is to regress," Brown told me, sipping a margarita over lunch. "It's buffoonery. It's me-ism. There's no getting around it--it's putting gasoline on the fire of stereotypes. When we were growing up in the '50s and '60s, we spent every day of our lives fighting stereotypes, all the shucking and jiving and cartoon dancing routines that black people were forced to do."
The way Brown sees it, many of today's athletes are simply in it for the money and celebrity, refusing to accept responsibility for having a huge impact on the culture around them. And he's not afraid of naming names. "Athletes need to represent more than that just getting a big contract and lots of endorsements," he says. "Take Michael Jordan. To me, he's full of bull. He's hiding his true self. All he cares about is getting ahead, being popular and enjoying the wealth of this country. Same with Kobe Bryant. For them, it's all about making money and doing all the commercials."
Brown expects more from today's athletes. After all, he walked the walk. When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and threatened with jail time for refusing to register for the draft during the Vietnam War, it was Brown and Boston Celtics star Bill Russell who led a contingent of black athletes who offered Ali their support. "Sports is detrimental to the development of culture if all you're willing to do is enjoy the fruits of this country," he says. "You've got to reinvest in the culture, not just exploit it. Today people just want non-combative heroes, who smile and say all the right things. That's fine, but that doesn't mean you have to play the fool and shake your butt just because you caught a pass for a touchdown."
I was too young to have seen Brown in his NFL heyday. So I wondered--what did he do after he ran over half a dozen defenders and sprinted into the end zone for a touchdown? "I gave the ball back to the official," he says sternly. "Like my old coach Paul Brown used to say--if you get into the end-zone, act like you've been there before."
Coming soon: Part 2 of our talk with Jim Brown. He explains how he helped cast Darren Dewitt Henson, the actor who plays him in the movie, as well as how it felt to be the first black star to have an interracial sex scene in a Hollywood film just 15 years after his Syracuse football coach warned him that he'd get kicked off the team if he ever dated a white woman.
Photo of Jim Brown by Myung J. Chun / L os Angeles Times