Editor's note: Each week during the season, Graham Bensinger talks with a high-profile NFL figure for ESPN.com's Weekly Conversation. Recently he sat down with Jim Brown for a lengthy conversation. Here are some of the highlights.
Graham Bensinger: In general, how do players today handle many of the situations that you played through?
Jim Brown: Well, most players today don't have the social situation that we had. Most players today are highly paid and most of them are specialists. They have a different attitude about the game. It's like one play at a time. You break your concentration and you dance or celebrate. It's more about the individual. A lot of it isn't very good football. A lot of it is good physical events. Like one play somebody might make a good hit, or great run, or a great pass. Overall, there are too many mistakes. The ball is on the ground too much. There are too many stupid mistakes, dumb mistakes. Personal fouls at the wrong time. Not knowing where the first-down line is. All those kind of things are prevalent today so consequently I don't have a lot of respect for the overall quality of play. For certain individuals I have great respect for because they're true warriors. Tom Brady is a great quarterback, Peyton Manning is a great quarterback, LJ [Larry Johnson] and LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] -- the great running backs. You have individuals that are fantastic players and they transcend time. Overall, the game suffers from a lack of concentration and a lack of a certain kind of dedication to excellence.
Bensinger: What do you think of many players running out of bounds to avoid hits today?
Brown: Well, I think a lot of them do it because they think it's a wise thing to do and they save themselves. I know even LT does that and I can see him doing that because he's that kind of runner. But I like a Dick Butkus, a Lawrence Taylor, a Shawne Merriman, Ray Lewis, Ronnie Lott -- I'm giving you guys from different eras. These are warriors. They don't run away from nothing physical. My attitude, if you're a football player, you don't run away from anything physical that will serve your purpose.
Bensinger: What do you think Paul Brown [former Browns coach] would have done had one of the Browns' players scored a TD and jumped up and shimmied?
Brown: I don't know what Paul would have done. More important, it's how I feel about it. I think it's a terrible exhibition. It's selfish. I think it's boorish. I think it's corny. And I think it hurts the performances and I think it hurts the game. I see sometimes a guy score a TD and one of his linemen might run to congratulate him, but he doesn't even acknowledge his lineman congratulating him. He's looking at the stands and beating his chest and ignoring his teammate. That's ridiculous.
Bensinger: You once told the Syracuse Herald Journal that the modern black athletes are the "most embarrassing collection of individuals I've ever known." What drove you to make that statement?
Brown: What drove me to make that statement? (laughs) My observation. When you see the Willie Lynch syndrome being acted out. The buffoonery. The things we fought to get away: the stereotypical gestures. The rolling of the eyes, the dancing, and all the Walt Disney stereotypical racial disgraces. You wonder how these individuals can be so stupid not to understand how the general public is looking at them. Yeah, I said that many times and I've said that to them. I don't think that it's cute. I don't think the majority of the fans in stands think it's cute. I think it's like chasing the shadow of the rabbit instead of the rabbit. Entertainment was always used in slave quarters. In fact, they used to take fighters, blindfold them, put everybody in the ring, and let you fight until the last guy was standing. They'd be sitting around the ring in tuxedos, with their women and jewelry. That was entertainment, boss. If you study history, you don't want to emulate the things that were degrading and humiliating. The humiliation was unreal. Now, guys are voluntarily playing the yes-a-boss slave. Yeah, that's embarrassing to me. To think in this day in age, these young men would be out there shaking their butts and not knowing much of anything else. Not understanding the dignity of a man and how to play a game and play it hard and let that speak for yourself. There's no debating this conversation. Anybody that takes the other side has got to be an enemy. Any man that would teach his son that that's the thing to do should be arrested. ...
Bensinger: Paul Brown. What do you think of him, today?
Brown: I have a lot of respect for Paul. Always did. I disagreed with him on some things because I thought he was a little behind the times after awhile. He had been an innovator and created a lot of things that were ahead of their time.
Bensinger: How intimidated were some of your teammates by him, then?
Brown: Well, Paul was an intimidating figure (laughs)
Bensinger: Was it how he looked or how he acted? What was it about him?
Brown: Paul was a very intimidating figure because he was highly intelligent. He knew what he wanted. He was the boss. He demanded excellence -- there was no doubt about it. He would challenge anything that he felt like he should challenge. It kind of scared people. It had nothing to do with being physical. He wasn't a big man and he didn't raise his hand to anybody, but his way of speaking was fantastic. His words were very sharp, very clear, very intellectual. He used to say we are the Yankees of football. We carry ourselves in a dignified manner, we will not have any thugs on this team, or any boorish people. He used those kinds of words in a manner to say we will be a classy organization. I appreciated that. There was no discrimination on his team. Everyone was scared of him so that made it nice.
"I'm going on 71 years old and the only thing I want in life is to make a contribution. If I can do that, I'm going to be cool. If not, I'm going to get me a little shack in the Florida Keys, get a fishing pole and take my family and become a recluse. "
Bensinger: When did you realize you should use your fame to bring about change and raise awareness?
Brown: I never felt like a second-class citizen. I was born realizing that men should be treated the same way.
I might say being that way caused me a lot of trouble. Because people like you to be like Mike [Michael Jordan]. (laughs) Be a great physical specimen. Run over a lot of people. Score a lot of baskets. Have no opinion on anything. Make a lot of money and be the master's boy.
I've never been anybody's boy. People don't like that attitude. [They] say you rock the boat, you're not satisfied, or you're malcontent. You're only a good American when you fight for freedom of equality and justice.
My attitude was always that I was an American citizen. I paid my damn taxes and I wanted my damn rights. I wasn't trying to be with white people. I wasn't trying to integrate anything. I just wanted my rights! Whatever that meant. I want a house and I can buy it, I want to buy it. If I want to go in a restaurant and it's a public restaurant, I want to go into that. American citizen. Pay my taxes. Want my rights!
Bensinger: The Muhammad Ali draft summit. In Muhammad Ali's statement against the draft and war, he became controversial and hated by some overnight. You gathered other prominent African-American athletes together to show your support for him. How big of a statement was that for you?
Brown: We don't measure statements, what we do is deal with circumstances. That was a situation that had to be addressed. I was the president of the Black Economic Union, John Wooten was my executive director. I called John from London and told him to contact all of the top black athletes from around the country and have them meet Ali in Cleveland so we could discuss his situation with the draft. They all showed up and we had about a three-hour meeting with him [Ali] in the back room of my office in Cleveland. [We] realized that he was very sincere in his position and that because of his religion, he was not going to go into the Army and we backed him. It was a very wonderful thing to have these young players not worry about risking their careers, but getting the right information from the horse's mouth so that they could make judgment on this man's action.
Bensinger: I was listening to someone talk about Muhammad Ali on TV. The gentleman said something that I found amazing. He didn't care about money. If Ali was that prominent an athlete and playing today, that would be unbelievable. Why do you think that is?
Brown: It wasn't a matter of not caring about money. Money did not dominate his life. There was purpose. The purpose of a Muhammad Ali. The purpose of a Jim Brown. The purpose of a Bill Russell. There's a purpose in life that doesn't include money. Money is man-made. It buys you things. It has nothing to do with your spirit. It has nothing to do with who you are. How much money do you need so [you have] your human dignity? You can't buy that. You're not a prostitute. You're a person. Money can never be first if you're a wise man.
Bensinger: How much do these huge salaries today make it so athletes have a harder time seeing that purpose?
Brown: Salaries don't make you not see a purpose. [It's] a lack of education, a lack of interest, a climate that deals with individual -- the "me" generation. Money is a part of that, but even guys that don't make money are not historically intelligent. Most of these guys don't graduate from college. All of my guys graduated: Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago and Colorado. We're always interested in education, in history, we knew our history, we know our history. We knew how to start businesses. [We] created the Black Economic Union in the '60s. [We] got over a million dollars from the Ford Foundation. [We] had a national business planning team. [We] had athletes and MBAs combined. The MBAs with their knowledge and the athletes with their promotional ability and the money. [We] started over 400 black businesses. Right now, every one of my guys are very successful today. My executive director is the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, John Wooten. [He's] one of the great Americans who has worked behind the scenes to get black coaches hired. That's a different way of living, my brother. That's the way we should be.
Bensinger: What are you most proud of accomplishing with the Negro Industrial Economic Union?
Brown: Well, I'm not sitting back and being proud. That was a step to get to where a lot of us are today and to move on. We had a setback because of gang violence and a lot of young people dying. We had to stop thinking about economic development, but one of the greatest things that happened in this country, at that time, was that organization. The participants in that organization are all fantastic individuals. Most of them are very effective in the social life of America, today. It's never been publicized and we don't try to publicize it because when you do the right thing in America (laughs), you become the greatest threat to the way of those who dominate others.
For example, you take Michael Jordan and you put him in front of our kids and you say, "Be like Mike!" I don't think Mike graduated [Editor's note: Jordan did graduate from UNC in 1986]. He's a good guy, nice guy, smiles, he's a great basketball player. We have all our kids trying to be great basketball players. You go to Beverly Hills and look at the other culture, all their kids are trying to be lawyers and great MBAs and so on so they can control the basketball players. They got us following Michael over here and all the other kids are getting the education that is going to allow them to control the Jim Browns and all those gladiators that's out there.
Bensinger: When you were heading off to Europe to film "The Dirty Dozen," at that point, how much longer did you feel you wanted to play football for?
Brown: Oh, I told Art [Modell] that I was retiring, but that I would leave the door open in case Blanton [Collier, who succeeded Paul Brown as head coach] might need me or the players needed me. I would consider coming back, but that basically I was going into retirement. Art jumped the gun on me. "The Dirty Dozen" was delayed because of rain and bad weather. When you do a movie, you always finish it. That's part of the culture. Art said if I didn't get back on time, he would fine me. I had a contract that only paid when I played so he couldn't fine me. (laughs) So that just made up my mind. I had a news conference and retired officially on the set of "The Dirty Dozen."
Bensinger: How large of a cinematic turning point was it for you as a black actor to not be playing a poor person or a bad guy?
Brown: Well, I played a lot of bad guys, I didn't play a poor one (laughs). I made a lot of major breakthroughs. I had pretty white and black leading ladies. I was making money dealing [with] the new profession and being a romantic lead with a lot of beautiful ladies. The main thing is that I was breaking taboos down and making it better for African-Americans as far as playing dignified roles and being the boss, the bad guy, the good guy, ride the white horse, get the girl all the things that everybody else could do. That was nice.
Bensinger: You were doing "100 Rifles" with the very sexy Raquel Welch. It was the first on-camera interracial love scene. How conscious were you two of its significance?
Brown: I was very aware of it. I had to be very careful. One thing that I didn't want anybody to say was that I was over there making a pass at her. She was a pretty strong lady. I thought the director went about the scene incorrectly because he wanted me to be this lustful sex-starved guy and go at her in a very rough way. I didn't think that's really what it called for. I sort of compromised and it came out OK.
Bensinger: You always talk about growing as an individual and self-betterment. In conclusion, to what extent are you satisfied with where you're at in your life today?
Brown: I'm going on 71 years old and the only thing I want in life is to make a contribution. If I can do that, I'm going to be cool. If not, I'm going to get me a little shack in the Florida Keys, get a fishing pole and take my family and become a recluse.
I told my wife that I'm going to do a paper and when I die I just want to be cremated and she can throw the ashes in the ocean. Put my spirit out there. I didn't want any funeral. I didn't want nobody celebrating, coming to the house, any of that because I dislike it. I don't even like to go to funerals, especially celebrities', because it's who's got the front seat and who's got this seat and what big stars are there. I don't like any of that. It's just, I'm simple JB. I was born this way and this is the way I am. I don't make claims of greatness in football, activism or anything. I'm just who I am. I'm satisfied with that. God has been very good to me. I'm relevant today. I can touch young people and I can persuade people to help me do that. I'm relevant in the simple form.
I've been here [at my house] since 1967. I love the flowers. I've been working all day on the landscaping. We're fixing the deck. It's a great life. I have some beautiful friends. I don't want anything from anybody. The pension plan is cool (laughs). Hey, my babies love me. I'm "daddy." That's where I'm at.
I'm going to speak my mind. When I get out of here, I'm gone. That's it. The spirit goes wherever it's going. Bottom line is that I'm at peace and I've been blessed.
One man, Ed Walsh, my high school coach, everything I've been, everything I could have been, he's always been a greater man than me. Not based upon greatness, he's just a hell of a man that saved my life and always represented a goodness in human beings. I thank God that he's a Caucasian man so that we can dispel all of these things about color, anything about who I prefer, and what I respect. He is No. 1. If he sees this interview and you just say that, that would be a very good gift to me. I never ever put myself ahead of him. He is a wonderful man that allowed me to have a chance to be the man that I am.
That's how I feel, boss. That's it, man.
Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org