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After four years as a professional linebacker for football teams in the U.S. and Canada, Aaron Maybin put down his helmet and picked up a range of new hats off the gridiron. As a public school teacher, artist, and activist, Maybin’s best days are still yet to come. Aaron Maybin joins Edge of Sports for a wide-ranging conversation on the boxes athletes get placed in, racism within the NFL, and his life after football.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Dave Zirin:  Welcome to Edge of Sports, the TV show, only on The Real News Network. I’m Dave Zirin. This week we have a former NFL player who left the sport to become a teacher, an artist, and a person of great importance in West Baltimore: Aaron Maybin. Also, I have words about the passing of legendary athlete, actor, and organizer Jim Brown, and what there is to learn from his fierce life.

But first, let’s talk to an author, an artist, an organizer, a teacher, and, oh, by the way, a former NFL player: his name is Aaron Maybin. 


Dave Zirin:  So Aaron Maybin.

Aaron Maybin:  Yes, sir.

Dave Zirin:  Great to have you on the show.

Aaron Maybin:  It’s an honor to be here. I feel like this is long overdue.

Dave Zirin:  Absolutely. I mean, I want to talk to you about your work. I want to talk to you about your writing. I want to talk to you about Baltimore, but I got to start with the question that I bet my viewers want to know the answer to: Look, people drive themselves into the floor, sometimes into a grave to make the National Football League, but the life clearly did not appeal to you. And I want to ask you why, and I want to ask you if you miss any of it?

Aaron Maybin:  I feel like that’s an amazing question, and it’s such a unique time to be unpacking that. The short end of that answer is I got to the point in my career where I realized that if I were to drop dead at that moment and the greatest thing that somebody could say about me and my life is that he was a damn good football player, then I wasted a long amount of time in my life. And I think that when you look around at the legacy of a lot of the former athletes that I worshiped coming up and that so many other kids that came from where I came from worshiped, not to say that football was the extent of their life’s work or their legacy, but for the ones that didn’t have the life after. That they could have had and that didn’t find a passion for themselves outside of the game that they really did love.

Those stories end up being a lot sadder than they are, you know what I mean? Great. I think about idols of mine that I had growing up, the Muhammad Alis of the world, the Jim Browns of the world at that time. God rest his soul. I think that seeing how the conversation about his life that’s taking place right now is somewhat irritating to some people because they feel as though after a man passes away, we only should talk about the highlight reel of his life, but our lives aren’t just our highlight reel. You know what I mean? And if the things that I did on a football field are the greatest representation of who I am as a human being, then I didn’t spend enough time developing myself as a human being.

Dave Zirin:  An amazing point

Aaron Maybin:  And I’ve always saw myself and so many other athletes as so much more than that. And I think that it’s a lot easier to put guys in boxes and just accept the fact that we’re one type of way. So when individuals are multifaceted, it’s a lot easier to dismiss them as the outcast when actually that’s a lot more normal than we give credit for. But we just don’t encourage people to explore that side of themselves. That’s not what we celebrate. We don’t celebrate the academic genius or the creative artist. We celebrate the athlete, we celebrate the entertainer. But I think that you’re starting to see a lot of athletes step outside of that box and show sides of themselves that it’s never really been cool to show before. But I think that we’re redefining what that cool looks like by being audacious enough to be ourselves.

Dave Zirin:  We’re redefining the cool. I love that. And we’re redefining the cool to be holistic in nature.

Aaron Maybin:  Absolutely.

Dave Zirin:  This quote I love from James Baldwin. He said, and he’s specifically talking about Black America, and he’s specifically talking about entertainers, which athletes, of course, are under that matrix. He said, “America is a country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Meaning you better stay in your round hole with a round peg and not try to get out of there.

Aaron Maybin:  And people love to build you up as long as you’re in that space, but the second that you step out of it, they love being able to pull the one Jenga piece out and watch the castle fall. We love playing that game with our celebrities. We’ll build you up just to watch. And I see that with so many. And again, some of it is warranted and I touch on that in a lot of my writing. I think that we’re at a point that we have to really be examining ourselves as a culture and a society. Where does the desire to cancel people come from? You know what I mean? Where does this mob mentality lead us? And I think that if we’re not asking those kinds of critical questions while still understanding that holding people accountable and all of those things are necessary. But it’s possible to hold people accountable without canceling them.

It’s possible to find each other. It’s possible to live in the gray matter between us than to retreat to our silos of indifference and say, we’re just going to pick our hills to die on. And it’s really tough to, like you said, and I think that this is something that even before the James Baldwins of the world and the Amiri Barakas and all of the great storytellers and world changers in that canon. They were all exploring the same questions and they were looking for the same answers. And I think that today we’re still looking for that same ethos that they channeled back then. And we’re constantly changing as a culture and a society. And how we change, I think, is just as important as the change itself. So looking at ourselves, the ability to look out at the world around us, but then the ability to look ourselves in the mirror and see our own imperfections where we’re falling short and holding ourselves accountable to get better every single day as we’re asking that from others.

Dave Zirin:  Absolutely. I’m going to talk about Jim Brown later in the show. And one of the things I’ve been saying as people have asked me about him is that it’s so important that we not cancel Jim Brown, and it’s so important that we not genuflect in the face of Jim Brown.

Aaron Maybin:  You actually wrote my favorite biography of Jim, to be perfectly honest, because I thought that you did that in your writing. I thought that you showed a human being. And I think that too many times we have this heroes complex where we want to see superheroes, but these aren’t superheroes. These are human beings. And the second that we take them off of that pedestal and look at them for the imperfect individuals that they are, they actually are more admirable because you understand what they had to fight through to achieve what they achieved, or in spite of themselves. You know what I mean? We’re able to accomplish certain things that are honorable and good people can do bad things. You know what I mean?

Dave Zirin:  I’m glad you said that because that’s where the learning begins. Once we start seeing people as three-dimensional, because if you think about it, what is really there to learn from Superman?

Aaron Maybin:  Nothing.

Dave Zirin:  Heat vision, stop some bullets, fly. That’s about it. But Batman, there are lessons there.

Aaron Maybin:  Or even Clark Kent.

Dave Zirin:  Even Clark Kent.

Aaron Maybin:  The understanding that on the other side of this indestructible figure, and I think that as a Black man, I’ve internalized that perspective and that struggle a lot more than average people would. Because I think that specifically when you talk about athletes, a lot of us wear that title of indestructibility as a badge of honor. But historically in this country, even from the days of enslavement, Black bodies have always been looked at as indestructible, which is the reason why they were the guinea pigs of our medical field. The first people to be experimented on and dehumanized in a way because you expected them to be able to overcome anything. They survived the middle passage.

They survived a brutalization that would’ve wiped a weaker people off of the planet. So the idea that you can endure more, the idea that you feel less, the idea that you’re always going to be strong enough to overcome it. Because a LeBron James exists, because a Jim Brown exists. Because somebody that comes from a hood similar to where you come from and is able to scale that caste and class system to the top, that the same reality is not just possible but probable for you, even though we know it’s not. You know what I mean? So the idea that we would internalize those thoughts to the point where we’re putting handicaps on people that in real life don’t have a safety net underneath.

Dave Zirin:  Everything you’re saying is reminding me of the NFL’s race norming scandal, if folks don’t know what that is, that’s when the NFL wasn’t paying out concussion settlements to Black athletes, to Black NFL veterans because they said, well, their IQ may have dropped from concussions, but our baseline for what their IQ should even be is lower. So an assumed lack of intelligence, basically saying, oh, it’s not the concussions that has them failing these tests. It’s the fact that they have Black skin.

Aaron Maybin:  And even when you take it a layer deeper, why do they send police officers into Black communities to operate with impunity? You don’t see police brutality in any community where the median income is over $100,000 for the families that live there. So what that says to me, and what the data and what the information says to me, is you send these police officers into communities where people don’t have the money to go out and get lawyers and defend themselves. They don’t have the means financially and socially, economically, to be able to fight back against that system. 

Think about it from the standpoint of NFL players. Most NFL players are not uber rich, like you would believe. The second, third string guys, the free agents that are bouncing around from team after team, the guys that are on all of the special teams that are getting the majority of those concussions. From these car accident-sized collisions that they’re doing over and over again throughout the course of a season, they’re seen as expendable. One of my best friends who we just buried a couple of months ago, his name was Matthew Rice, nickname Blu, another artist that went to Penn State from Baltimore. Left Penn State, played for several teams: Buffalo Bills, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, before going over to NFL Europe to continue fighting for his professional career. From the day that I met him, he suffered from epilepsy, he suffered from concussions, he suffered from seizures, debilitating seizures. The type that…

Dave Zirin:  Take over your life, really.

Aaron Maybin:  Exactly. I’ve been there to experience, you know what I mean? With him – And we lived together and traveled together, this was my brother – Died from brain cancer earlier this year. But from the standpoint of the seizures and the concussions and all of that kind of stuff, the speed at which his body deteriorated once it all got bad is something I’ve never seen before. And there’s no way that all of those years of football, you know what I mean? And we talked about that towards the end, because that’s something that deep down all of us are terrified about.

Dave Zirin:  But the NFL is so clever though in it’s [inaudible]

Aaron Maybin:  Because they expect the players like him never to do the class action lawsuit. They expect the players like him never to make a big fuss. Because even at the point of you possibly dying, we have to still acknowledge how much we love this game. And how much we were willing to sacrifice certain things if it gave us an opportunity to change the trajectory of our family’s lives.

Dave Zirin:  I can’t tell you how many NFL players I’ve interviewed, and I ask them, do you want your son to play in the NFL? And they say, absolutely not. And then I say, do you wish you’d never played in the NFL? And they say, no, I’m glad I played in the NFL. There’s a cognitive dissonance there.

Aaron Maybin:  It’s the same thing that you get when… No hustler that’s on the street getting money wants that life for your son. But if that is all you had access to, and that allowed you to put food on the table and to keep the lights on and to keep your son out of the harm’s way of a bullet, you think he regrets the fact that he went out there and did what he needed to do?

Dave Zirin:  What he had to do.

Aaron Maybin:  You know what I mean? NFL players were mercenaries.

Dave Zirin:  It’s interesting though. That’s the only sport where you hear that. You’ve got LeBron James’s dream is to play with his son, Bronny. You don’t hear that in NFL circles. It’s hard to speak with you about this and not think about one of those times where the toll on the NFL body was there for the whole country to see. And that’s when Damar Hamlin went down in the Buffalo Bills game against the Cincinnati Bengals. And two questions about that I had for you: The first was your reaction when you saw that, and then the NFL’s ability, in almost real time, to spin that into this kind of Rocky story of Damar Hamlin coming back. And, oh, look at his first words from the hospital. It was, did we win? I don’t know if that’s true, but the NFL was certainly trumpeting that.

Aaron Maybin:  Exactly. And it’s always hard for me to discuss this because, for several reasons, I feel how I feel. If that young man still wants to go out there and put his body on the line, that’s still his decision to make. And who am I to tell him that’s something that he’s worked his whole life in pursuit of is also the thing you need to walk away from. All players experience that moment. But for each of us, it comes to us differently. And we have to be able to, when I had that moment myself, and I had to accept what this was, what I was doing to myself and really recognize that if this continues, I have to be cool with whatever is the result of this.

But again, when you’ve never cultivated yourself outside of the field or outside of the arena that you perform in, when you’ve never felt the pride that comes along with being celebrated for something outside of the game. How many players do you think really see the type of success for themselves outside of that game and they’ve been able to do inside? You know what I mean? For a lot of guys, even when you get to college, they don’t encourage you to really go after pursuing a career and a lifestyle that will fulfill you. They want to keep you eligible. They want the product on the field to be number one. They care less about the student athlete thing for the most part. And unless you’re the kind of guy that goes out of his way like I did, and several others that I grew up with did, you really don’t see a life outside of this profession for yourself.

Dave Zirin:  You talk about achievement and being recognized for achievement off the field, off that kind of hyper gladiatorial arena. You have been celebrated as a community organizer, as a teacher, as a mentor, as an artist, as a writer. And I’m doing the short version of the list.

Aaron Maybin:  I wear a lot of hats.

Dave Zirin:  You wear a lot of hats, but you also achieve while wearing these hats, and you inspire while wearing these hats. And I wanted to ask you where that part of you comes from? I feel like from what I know about you, the seed is art and that from which all flows. And I want to know where that comes from, especially for somebody who is clearly on a track at a young age towards professional athletics.

Aaron Maybin:  Art was always my preferred language method of choice from a young age. I was creating before I could form words and speak. So even at a young age when I was not yet a year old, months old, I’d run around and grab things off of tables and turn it into something in my mind to be sitting there playing with an inanimate object for minutes at a time. And then when I got a little bit older, all of the aluminum foil and the Reynolds wrap around the house started to disappear because I was making action figures and toys to play with. And then my father started to realize that I would run around, I was in perpetual motion as a kid. I would run everywhere. I would never sit still. Every school I went to made attempts to medicate me.

But one of the things that my parents recognized early on was the only time I would really sit and engage with something was when I was playing a sport. I would key in to whatever my coach was saying. And when I was making art, I would sit still for hours and draw, paint, sculpt, whatever. And my parents, unlike a lot of parents would’ve done at the time, they poured into that. They understood that this is something that we have to nurture. They introduced me to my mentor, Larry Poncho Brown, at a very young age. 

And especially after my mom’s passing. After my mom passed, I was six years old at the time. I stopped talking. I stopped the joyful kid that was always perpetual motion and all of that, got a lot darker and a lot quieter, and a lot more pensive, and art became how I communicated. The feelings that I was feeling I didn’t really have language for yet. And you add that to the fact that I was functionally illiterate until I was in the sixth grade. I just felt lost during that time and I felt like nobody understood or was trying to understand me in a way that would help. So art was how I expressed what was going on. 

And before long, I realized that it wasn’t just a therapeutic exercise for me, but it was something that the adults around me celebrated. It was something that they recognized the skill in and said, oh, you got a future in this” And human beings, whether we want to admit it or not, we all have a desire to be appreciated, celebrated. Acknowledged, loved on. And that became an outlet that I saw for myself the first time outside of the athletic arena, that I felt like I was celebrated and appreciated for my skill and my talent. And I wanted to feel more of that. So I started to not just experiment with these things, but pursue mastering those crafts. 

And as I learned how to read and eventually fell in love with language after being exposed to Black books and the canon of authors that actually wrote with me in mind. And then I realized I was never as dumb as I thought I was, never, it wasn’t that I didn’t love reading, but the books that I was being given. I can’t look at Huckleberry Finn and see myself in that as a kid from West Baltimore. And I didn’t know at that point that there were artists, that there were authors out there that were writing with me in mind, that were writing in a language. If I can read the shorthand of a Mark Twain, or the shorthand of a Shakespeare or anybody else, then why can’t I read the shorthand of a Zora Neale Hurston? Why can’t I read the shorthand? Why isn’t this great American literature? 

So the second I get exposed to the Richard Wrights and the Zora Neale Hurston’s and the Alice Walkers, and then contemporary guys like Dee Watkins and Sister Soldier, and it goes on and on and on and on. I can talk books and authors all day, but think about how many Black kids in Baltimore don’t realize that they love books because they’ve never been given literature with them in mind. So I realized eventually I needed to start telling my own stories. I didn’t want to trust anybody else to tell my story for me.

Dave Zirin:  I can’t help thinking that the books you’re describing are the very books they’re trying to ban.

Aaron Maybin:  Of course, of course. I just did a podcast on that, my most recent podcast was on the banning of books right now in America, because we’re seeing unprecedented… Nazi Germany didn’t have this many books banned. And I think that to put it in its proper context, there was a time that Germany was one of the social capitals of the world. They had a huge LBGTQ community out there. You had gay bars everywhere. 

Dave Zirin:  It’s where Jews felt safest.

Aaron Maybin:  You had artists and entertainers of color that would vacation there every year because they felt at home, they felt accepted. You had tourists that would go through there. It was a really beautiful, robust culture over there. And during the Nazification of Germany, you started to see a lot of things that you’re seeing right now in America. You started to see the banning of books and subjects in schools. You started to see a change in the tone of public discourse. You started to see a lot less understanding and a lot more finger pointing and condemnation. You started to see this mob mentality run wild. 

So when we see these things, a quote that I’ve always had as a north star of mine is, whenever they start banning books, our people need to be running to read them. And that’s whether you agree with them or not. There’s a reason why freedom of speech is the standard in this country, because the second that speech is no longer free, the second that you start to police what somebody says, you’re trying to police what they think as well.

Dave Zirin:  Absolutely. I wish I had three hours to talk to you. I’m not joking.

Aaron Maybin:  We could definitely do it all day.

Dave Zirin:  We got to one question out of 10, which I love, frankly. And I am going to go to my notes though, because this is a question I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time. What is the difference between the Baltimore you know with the Baltimore people think they know?

Aaron Maybin:  I could talk about this all day. At this point in my life, I’m 35. I’ve accomplished a lot, first round draft pick. You know what I mean?

Dave Zirin:  Published author on numerous occasions.

Aaron Maybin:  Published author, nationally award-winning artist. All of those things. I’ve lived in New York before. I’ve lived in Miami before. I’ve lived in Atlanta and South Carolina. I could have chose to put my roots down anywhere. But Baltimore is the only place that I’ve lived that I’ve ever felt at home. Baltimore is home, not just because I was born here, but it’s the only place that feels like home. All of these places that I lived – and granted, there are different factors that contribute to this, but you feel tolerated. You feel accepted. But you don’t feel wanted. You don’t feel loved. I could sit out on the front stoop of any row house in this city and have conversations with people that would blow your mind. Everything from the food to the tough love that we show to one another, the grit within the charm in this city. I love it. It’s a part of my DNA. 

And the thing that whenever people hear about our city, you’re hearing information that’s been given to you with an agenda. And the agenda is for you to be afraid of it. The agenda is for you to want it to change. The agenda is for you to fear the people and to fear the culture and all of those things. But all that does is it robs you of the opportunity to fall in love with it the way that I do. Everything from the language to our customs, our quirks, the fact that we will never be a big metropolitan city because we don’t desire to be. The blue collar that’s in our way of living, in our vernacular, in our mindset. That for me is authentic. That for me is home. That for me is love. 

And of course, you have the other side of the coin. You have the poverty. You have the struggle, you have the segregation. Still to this day, we’re probably one of the most segregated cities in America, because we were the birthplace of redlining. But the thing that most people don’t think about, even when they think about that, is what happens when you take a city as small as Baltimore and chop it up into 300 small neighborhoods? You know what I mean?

Dave Zirin:  Makes it very difficult to organize, doesn’t it?

Aaron Maybin:  Absolutely. But the beautiful, unintended result of that is in those 300 little neighborhoods, you have 300 little villages and communities where there’s all the love and affection and intimacy and life and vigor to make life possible, even in those spaces of lack. And for me, I’m never going to stop fighting to make that what people think of when they think of our city. And in order for that to happen, you need to experience more of it. But when all you see is The Wire – Shout out to David Simon and everybody – That’s a part of that because it was an amazing show. But even a show as multilayered as The Wire can’t show you all of the layers of the beautiful tapestry that is our city. 

So through my artwork, through my writing, through just the way I live my life, I never wanted to be a person that’s preaching at everybody or anything like that, but I want to be an example of how you can live life in a way that improves your community, that shows love to your people, that creates a pathway to success for the youth that are following behind us. That allows us to truly be in a space where we can thrive.

Dave Zirin:  Aaron Maybin, I’ve wanted to do this for so long. Thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Aaron Maybin:  Thank you for having me.

Dave Zirin:  We’ll be back right after this


Dave Zirin:  And now, I have some Choice Words. The alert came across my phone from The New York Times: “Jim Brown died at 87. An acclaimed football player, actor, and civil rights activist, he was accused of domestic violence.” Wow. It was a lot to take in. I had spent four years writing a book about his life called Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, from which much of this, what I’m about to say to you, comes from. As part of that project, I stayed at Brown’s house in the West Hollywood Hills for a week, and despite his age and health, it was difficult to ever imagine this oak tree of a man dying. The Times alert showcased a fool’s errand in its attempt to drill Jim Brown’s life down to 20 words. Here he is being called a civil rights activist when he opposed much of the politics and many of the methods and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. He derided civil rights marches as “parades” in the 1950s and then again in 2016. 

That was when he engaged in an ugly, public feud with Rep. John Lewis, whom Brown condemned for questioning Donald Trump’s legitimacy as president. By that time, Brown supported Trump, a position that I argued made sense given his politics, which were both consistent and complicated. Brown supported Richard Nixon in 1968 and spoke at Huey Newton’s funeral in 1989 – Huey Newton being one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. 

What is not complicated, though, is his treatment of women. But again, to break that down to only “was accused of domestic violence” does both the history and the survivors an injustice. Brown’s life calls for more than genuflection or dismissal, as I said to Aaron Maybin; it demands study. 

Football is the closest thing we have in this country to a national religion, albeit a religion built on a foundation of crippled apostles and disposable martyrs. In this brutal church, Jim Brown was the closest thing to a warrior-saint. Brown was both statistically and according to awed eyewitnesses perhaps the greatest football player to ever take the field. At six-foot-three and 230 pounds, running a sub-four-and-a-half-second 40-yard dash, he was like a 21st-century Terminator sent back in time to destroy 1950s and ’60s linebackers. In the gospel of football, defensive demons like Dick Butkus or Lawrence Taylor have carried some of that fearful mystique: transforming their opponents into quivering balls of gelatin. But on offense, the all-time great skill players have inspired adulation but never physical fear. On that side of the line of scrimmage, the list of true intimidators began and ended with Jim Brown.

The statistics that define his time in football are still without equal. Brown played nine years and finished with eight rushing titles, a level of consistent greatness no one has come close to matching. He was the only player to average 100 yards rushing per game over an entire career, getting five yards with every carry. Then there was the most impressive-of-all number: zero. That was the number of games Brown missed over his nine year career. It would be an achievement for a place kicker. But it was especially remarkable given the ungodly workload Brown maintained and the constant punishment he took, touching the ball for roughly 60% of all of the Cleveland Browns’s offensive plays.

But Brown was also more than an athlete even when he was an athlete. He was, in many respects, the first modern superstar, again as if arriving from the future. In an era before strong sports unions, he organized his locker room to stand up to management on issues great and small, never giving an inch and earning a derisive nickname from team executives: “the locker room lawyer.” Fifteen years before Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for Black athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Brown was the one who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin. In the time before Muhammad Ali “shook up the world” by joining the Nation of Islam and refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, it was Brown whom Ali turned to for advice and support.

Brown was the first player to use an agent. He was the first superstar to successfully demand that a coach be fired and that released teammates be immediately un-released. He was the first athlete to ever willingly quit his sport in his prime, because his “manhood” was more important to him than enduring the disrespect of management. He was the first Black athlete to be bigger than the league itself. When players like LeBron James have leveraged their own stardom to assert their will on the direction of their teams and their leagues, it all traces back to Brown.

If that were where Jim Brown’s story ended, it would fill volumes. But his football life was just the opening salvo in a much more sprawling epic. Brown parlayed his athletic fame into Hollywood stardom, where it was thought he could become “the Black John Wayne.” When this path was stymied by the racialized rules of Hollywood, he became the first Black actor to try to rewrite the script by launching his own mainstream, big-time production company to make, as he put it, “Black films for a mass audience,” along with his partner the comedian Richard Pryor, before they had a falling out for the ages. He was an outspoken Black Power icon in the 1960s and spearheaded a network of Black economic unions to build independent hamlets of financial strength in the Black community.

Brown has had his supporters and detractors. But the common thread that one hears from everyone who has had dealings with him – Dealings good, bad, and ugly – Is that “Jim Brown is above all else, a man.”

This word “man” might as well have been a birthmark affixed to Brown when he arrived in the world on Feb. 17, 1936. His nickname as a small child was “Man,” and the word “manhood” is the political current that pulses throughout his life.

Kevin Blackistone wrote in The Washington Post in 2017, this is what he wrote, it’s a great quote, he wrote, “Brown, maybe more so than any other Black athlete the past 50 years, came to be seen as sort of an emperor of Black masculinity and of Black power.” 

Brown’s assertion of his own unassailable masculinity conjures another legend who was a friend and contemporary: Malcolm X. In his eulogy for the icon of Black empowerment, the actor Ossie Davis said, “Malcolm was our manhood.” Davis, in his stentorian voice, was arguing that Malcolm embodied Black masculinity, valor, and heroism in a society dedicated to treating and labeling Black men as “boys.” Brown quite self-consciously cut himself from that cloth.

Jim Brown asserted his fierce sense of manhood as a principle of emancipation. On the most hyper-masculine cultural canvases of the United States – NFL football, the Black Power movement, Hollywood’s Blaxploitation era, the gang wars both inside and outside prison walls – Brown made his mark. 

In the most toxic expression of how our society defines “what makes a man” – The assertion of domination over women – He has left a very different kind of legacy. This history of accusations of violence against women levied against him have scarred his legacy. When pressed about all of these incidents, Brown only said, “There’s been lies written about me, there’s been some truth, too. I’m no angel, but what I do, I tell the truth about.”

It was not merely that Brown did not take the accusations of violence against women seriously. No one in power really did. Art Modell, the former owner of the Cleveland Browns, said in one interview with a wise-guy smile in place that Brown “got into trouble because of, shall we say, a rough social encounter with a gal, or two, or three.”

The cases against Brown are extensive. He often said that he has “never been convicted of violence against women,” which is true. But almost all the cases tended to follow a script that was far too common at the time: Women, exclusively Black women, making heinous accusations against Brown, then facing all sorts of harassment and disbelief, and dropping the charges. Brown also shook his head when I asked him about this history, and he only said, “Violence against women… Shit,” as if he could not believe this still followed him so late in life. Yet the cases span the years from 1965 to 1999. It’s a remarkable stretch that cannot be written off as just an endless series of law-and-order conspiracies, coincidences, or bad luck. If we are going to tell Brown’s story, it is irresponsible to not say the names of Brenda Ayres, Eva Bohn-Chin, Debra Clark, and others.

As the years passed and at least a minority of people started taking these allegations seriously, they prevented him from achieving the kind of mainstream adulation bestowed upon contemporaries like Ali and Bill Russell. Barack Obama, who as president took a particular joy in interacting with Black sports heroes of yesteryear, never invited Brown to the White House, which stung. Donald Trump, however, rolled out the red carpet. In December 2016, the president-elect sat down with Brown and former NFL player Ray Lewis. Brown left the meeting saying, “I fell in love with [Trump] because he really talks about helping Black people.” 

If we understand Jim Brown’s actual political beliefs over the last 50 years – And not the beliefs we projected onto him – His meeting with Trump should have surprised no one. His history shows that in addition to being a great football player, legendary tough guy, and anti-racist icon, Brown was always a mess of political contradictions. He’s the anti-racist who condemned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Civil Rights Movement as a waste of time. He’s the NFL rebel who has long been at odds with the NFL Players Association. He was almost alone, almost alone, in fighting for the life of Crip gang founder, multiple-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and author Stan Tookie Williams until Tookie’s last day on death row. He also stood with Donald Trump.

Meeting Jim Brown in the flesh in 2014, even at his advanced age, almost answered the question for me as to how he could be widely revered despite his history and politics. He projected a sense of strength that made you want – Even with all evidence to the contrary – To be lined up on his side. He walked with a cane as tall and thick as a baby oak. It was a chunk of wood designed to hold up a very specific body; a body that, even with age and a pronounced limp, was striking in its power. He was built like a series of imperfect, craggy cubes, no longer possessing the 47-inch chest and 32-inch waist that made him a Hollywood sex symbol but still looking like he could move a mountain. Yes, he needed that cane to walk. He could not turn his neck. His hands could no longer grip objects with anything close to full strength. But he was still Jim Brown: sharp as a tack and made of stone.

Now I want to say something he said to me. He said, “I’ve always occupied a special position and been able to get certain opportunities because the system wanted to use my talents for economic gain. And as long my talents were relevant, I was relevant. But, the greatest desire in my soul was and is to represent myself as a man and carry myself as a man at all times. I wanted to help others and always credit those who helped me. I wasn’t ‘Jim Brown’ always. One time I was 8 years old, 12 years old, 18 years old. So you can’t look at me or anybody as just one block because it doesn’t all wrap up like a big box with candy and ribbons around it and shit. And it isn’t all negative or positive. It just is what it is.”

Something documentarian Ken Burns said makes this understandable to me. He said, “We always lament in the superficial media culture that there are no heroes, but that presupposes that a hero is perfect, and what the Greeks have told us for millennia is that a hero isn’t perfect. It’s just the negotiation between a person’s strengths and weaknesses… And sometimes it’s not a negotiation. It’s a war.”


Well that’s all the time we have for this week’s show. Thank you so much to Aaron Maybin for coming in studio and talking to us, thank you so much to everybody out there who’s been supporting Edge of Sports. For everybody out there, I’m Dave Zirin, only on The Real News Network. We are outta here. Peace.

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Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation Magazine. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports, including most recently, The Kaepernick Effect Taking A Knee, Saving the World. He’s appeared on ESPN, NBC News, CNN, Democracy Now, and numerous other outlets. Follow him at @EdgeofSports.