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What Is Jim Brown's Problem With Kobe Bryant?

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Answer by William Petroff,

Largely that Kobe is your "typical" modern superstar athlete.

Look, this isn't really about Kobe in-and-of-himself. It's not about the "Kobe vs. Shaq" debate and it's not really about the "pampered" nature of the modern black athlete.[1] It's about Jim Brown's very, very strong feelings about social action and certain individual's responsibilities. It is, however, important to note that these remarks are kind of par for the course for Brown; it's not the first time he's taken issue with a prominent black athlete, or even the first time he's talked this way about Kobe. From an interview during his press run for The Express in 2008:

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.[2]


Or during the 2008 incident when golf commentators invoked the idea of a lynch mob with regards to Tiger Woods' opponents:

Others, including NFL Hall of Famer and longtime activist Jim Brown, criticized Woods for missing an opportunity to condemn the use of lynch, which for many evokes images of black bodies hanging limp from ancient trees.[3]


Or when he went after Tiger Woods a year later with regards to his stances on social issues (or lack there of):

Jim Brown criticized Tiger Woods, who topped all American athletes earning $99.7 million last year, for being terrible as an "individual for social change."[4]


Or when he and Bill Russel talked about the lack of social activists amongst today's prominent black athletes:

Brown reverted back to what has become almost a platitude of his -- singling out Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as disappointments when it comes to social responsibility. "I know they both know better," he says. "And I know they can both do better without hurting themselves." Brown's comment hints at the widely held idea that Tiger and MJ shy away from activism because it would alienate VIPs and stunt their earning potential. Brown is saying, however, "No it won't, so start speaking up with more than just your wallet."

... Russell said he knows that many of today's athletes have a social conscious, but that they see the "problem" differently (and by problem, I deduce that he means the continued struggles facing the black community and minorities, in general). That's exactly what's at work here. We have no shortage of "citizen athletes." Slews have foundations, show up to Boys & Girls Clubs, run camps, send money to their high school alma maters, etc. NBA players cared before NBA Cares. But whereas we have hundreds of "citizen athletes," we don't have many "athlete activists."[5]


This is who Jim Brown is. He is a a firm believer in an individual's responsibility be a force for social change, especially prominent black athletes.[6]

Now, of course, the reality is that it's far better to be black (or any minority) in America today than it was 50 years ago. But you get the sense that Jim Brown feels as if today's athletes feel and, more importantly, act as if the fight's pretty much over. And, I think, that lends itself to some measure of understanding his distaste for many of the modern black athletes. For someone who looks around and sees the death, or who possibly just simply can't recognize the modern iteration, of the "social justice" athlete that in many ways defined his era, is it any wonder that there's a little bit of bitterness there?



[1] Though, it is, of course, in some ways about all of it because it's really hard to distinguish individual actions/realities from the whole.

[2] Football great Jim Brown on 'The Express' and why  Kobe needs to step it up

[3] Overcoming segregation and bigotry, he opened the

[4] Random evidence of a cluttered mind

[5] Today's athletes choose different way of social activism

[6] Part of this is rooted in the idea that he gained his popularity, and earned a living, engaging in an activity that was something he saw as a pale imitation of the stereotypical "black entertainer" trope; if he -- and, by extension, other athletes -- doesn't use those gains for good, it's in some ways a betrayal of all that he and others worked for. More questions on 2013-14 NBA Season:

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