If Jim Brown’s only legacy had been his NFL career, it would have been enough to earn him the title of one of the all-time greats of the game. But his gridiron feats were only a fraction of what Brown, who died on Thursday, May 18, accomplished over the course of his life. Brown parlayed his athletic fame into work as an onscreen leading man, and was a vocal advocate for civil rights throughout his life.
“Jim Brown was a gifted athlete — one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field — but also a cultural figure who helped promote change,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. “During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport. He inspired fellow athletes to make a difference, especially in the communities in which they lived.”
Brown’s athletic honors speak volumes about his talent: he was inducted into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, and he was named to the NFL’s 50th, 75th and 100th Anniversary Teams. In 2020, a panel named Brown the greatest college player of all time. He was also named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player on three separate occasions.
It’s worth mentioning here that football was not the only sport at which he excelled — his feats as a lacrosse player prompted the Premier Lacrosse League to name their MVP award in his honor.
Brown was also known for his support for Muhammad Ali in the wake of Ali’s decision to refuse the draft. In 2016, ESPN cited comments Brown had made in an interview with Larry King two years earlier, saying that he and Ali “had the same attitude about being an American and our rights and our equal rights and being outspoken about it, and never taking a back seat to freedom, equality and justice.”
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Other aspects of Brown’s life were more contentious, including a six-month stint in prison for refusing to attend domestic violence counseling after attacking his wife Monique’s car. Brown’s 2018 White House visit with Kanye West also proved to be polarizing. Brown leaves behind a complicated legacy, and working through it will be no easy task.