Jim Brown and social activism, by David W. Marshall

5/25/2023, 6 p.m.
Since most players in professional basketball and football are Black, it should come as no surprise that many high-profile Black …

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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Barkley concluded.

In a 1993 issue of Sports Illustrated, Utah Jazz star Karl Malone wrote that being a role model was not Mr. 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 agree with Mr. Malone’s assessment that being a role model means not always knowing when a child has chosen your example to follow. 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.

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.

Yet, Mr. Jackson, 77, recently said he no longer watches the NBA due to politics. He references the slogans used in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mr. 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,” Jhe said. “People want to see sports as non-political. Politics stays out of the game; it doesn’t need to be there.”

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 1960s.

Mr. 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, He was 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. 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, Jim Brown often is 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.

Mr. 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.

The writer is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of “God Bless Our Divided America”